State v. Phillips
Docket No. A-3953-18T4
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
One night, police received complaints about drug dealing occurring at the Rodeway Inn, and the hotel manager told police that there had been heavy foot traffic in and out of Room 107. The police conducted surveillance and observed a male leave that room and walk to the corner of Pacific Avenue, where he met with a female. The police observed what they believed to be a hand-to-hand, arrested the female, and found an illicit drug in her possession. the police then stopped the male and arrested him for drug distribution. He stated to the police that he was staying in Room 107 at the hotel.
Next, two police officers went to Room 107 to continue the investigation. They knocked on the door and announced their identities as police officers. The defendant proceeded to open the door about “80 percent” – enough to allow the officers to see into the room. The officers testified to immediately detecting the “extremely overpowering smell of burnt marijuana,” and while still in the hallway outside the room, observed what appeared to be a hand-rolled marijuana cigar on the edge of the bed.
Subsequently, Detective Berardis entered the room to place the defendant under arrest for marijuana possession and use, but as soon as he crossed the threshold into the room, the detective observed a large suitcase which was open and located in between the bed and the wall adjacent to the door. The officer then observed a sandwich bag filled with rice (which the officer knew from training and experience drug dealers use to preserve heroin), and multiple bags of suspected heroin and a digital scale. After making the arrest, the detectives secured the marijuana cigar, the bag of rice, the bags of suspected heroin, and the scale. They did not search the room for further evidence.
Although the trial court judge found the police witnesses to be credible, he did not agree with Detective Berardis that it was necessary for him to enter the hotel room to effect the arrest. The judge reasoned that the officers could have directed the defendant to step out of the room to complete the arrest process. The trial court held that the trial court unlawfully entered the hotel room to arrest the defendant for a disorderly persons offense committed in their presence.
The appellate court noted that the trial court only partly granted defendant’s motion to suppress, however. The court suppressed the heroin police observed only after they entered the room, but also ruled that the marijuana cigar police observed while they were still in the hallway was admissible under the plain view doctrine. The appellate court believed that the trial court judge’s two rulings – suppressing the heroin and admitting the marijuana cigar – are incongruous. They reasoned that if there was sufficient exigency to justify the police entry to retrieve the marijuana cigar from the bed, then the officers would have been legitimately present in the hotel room for that purpose when they observed the heroin in an open suitcase next to the bed. Therefore, the appellate court remanded the matter for the trial court to clarify and amplify its ruling with respect to the exigent circumstances required to enter the room to secure the marijuana cigar. The appellate court noted that in assessing exigency, it may consider (1) the limited degree of physical intrusion into the room; (2) the seriousness of the offense for which they had probable cause; (3) the drug distribution transaction involving a room occupant that occurred nearby shortly before the entry; (4) the report of heavy foot traffic into the room; (5) the possibility that someone else might have been in the bathroom; (6) the inherent destructibility of the marijuana cigar; and (7) any other circumstance the court deems relevant to the reasonableness of the police entry to retrieve the marijuana cigar.
At Hark & Hark we represent clients in criminal matters who were involved with possible impermissible searches of their vehicle, rooms, or residences. We vigorously defend our clients by fighting to suppress such weapon and/or drug possession evidence. We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing any type of criminal charge, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Essex, Gloucester, Mercer, Ocean, and Salem counties.