NJ Court Upholds Search: Emergency Aid Doctrine in Warrantless Hotel Room Entry
Docket No. A-2836-21
Decided October 27, 2023
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Court of New Jersey decided defendant’s appeal from an order denying his motion to suppress evidence from a warrantless search of a hotel room he was occupying.
On March 2, 2020, a man named “Josh” called 9-1-1 claiming he saw three men fighting in the parking lot of a hotel. The hotel was in a high crime area. Josh advised one of the men brandished a gun and then fled to room 220. Josh then stated he left the hotel and went to a nearby Wendy’s parking lot. When officers attempted to make contact with him, they were unsuccessful. Police attempted several times to contact the caller to get more details about the situation, but he was uncooperative.
After reviewing the guest registry for room 2020, officers learned the room was registered to a woman, Vanessa Garrido. Officers observed a woman open the door and immediately close it when she noticed a police presence outside. Officers also observed a shirtless man open the curtain in the room and instantly close it once he noticed police in the area. Three officers then went to the room and knocked on the door. Ms. Garrido answered the door and defendant was also in the room. A search of the room revealed no other persons. Ms. Garrido and defendant were detained, handcuffed, and read Miranda rights. Defendant agreed to talk to officers. Officers then observed in plain view a grey jacket hanging on the wall, with a black handgun sticking out of the left pocket. Officers asked defendant if there were any weapons in the room, and defendant advised there was in his jacket.
Ms. Garrido was questioned by officers as well. She indicated that she and defendant were not fighting and that her ex-boyfriend was the person who called the police. Defendant was arrested and indicted for unlawful possession of a handgun without a permit and related crimes. Ms. Garrido was also arrested after police found a folded twenty-dollar bill with “a white powdery substance believed to be cocaine” on it.
Defendant then moved to suppress evidence seized from the hotel room, contending that police acted on an uncorroborated tip and lacked exigent circumstances to enter the room, handcuff its occupants, and search the room. After hearing oral argument, the judge denied defendant’s motion. The trial judge found that the emergency aid doctrine articulated in State v. Hathaway, 222 N.J. 453 (2015) applied. Although the anonymous tip was not corroborated like it was in Hathaway, the trial judge found the totality of the circumstances from “the point of view of the officers in real time” warranted entering the room. Defendant subsequently pled guilty to unlawful possession of a weapon and appealed.
On appeal, defendant argued that the denial of his suppression motion must be reversed because the trial court ignored the utter failure of the police to corroborate a single one of the allegations made by an anonymous, “uncooperative” caller, and that failure precluded any finding that the police had an objectively reasonable basis to conduct a warrantless search of his hotel room pursuant to the emergency aid/community caretaking function. The emergency aid doctrine allows police to enter a dwelling without a warrant if: (1) there is “‘an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency requires that [police] provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury’ and (2) there is a ‘reasonable nexus between the emergency and the area or places to be searched.'” State v. Vargas, 213 N.J. 301, 323-24 (2013) (quoting State v. Edmonds, 211 N.J. 117, 132 (2012)).
Ultimately, the Appellate Court of New Jersey affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny defendant’s motion to suppress evidence. The court indicated that although police called Josh back and searched for him in the Wendy’s parking lot, they could not corroborate the information he reported because he refused to cooperate following the initial call. Under the totality of the circumstances, the court determined that there was an objective basis for police to believe there was an emergency requiring them to enter the room. The information known to police before entering the room included that after an altercation, a man was seen with a gun entering a room occupied by a woman; a woman and then a man in that room were acting suspiciously; and the hotel was in a high-crime area where police had responded in the past, including for gun-related crimes. Police had attempted to corroborate information reported by the caller, but he would not cooperate further. The court also determined that there was a sufficient nexus between the emergency and the area searched, since it was reasonable for police to do more than just knock on the door and speak with Garrido given the facts in the record.
At Hark & Hark, we are experienced attorneys who represent clients in Superior Court for issues like the previously discussed case pertaining to motions to suppress evidence seized as the result of an unlawful search. We work hard to ensure that our clients receive exceptional representation in order for them to receive the most favorable outcome in their case as a result.
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