State versus Dawson – Standard of Review for a Motion to Suppress for the Trial Court

State of New Jersey versus Dawson – Submitted by New Jersey Drug Crime Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

We begin our analysis mindful of the applicable standard of review with respect to factual findings. In reviewing a grant or denial of a motion to suppress, we are bound to uphold factual findings, supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record, which underlie the trial court’s decision. State v. Gamble, 218 N.J. 412, 424 (2014) (citing State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007)). Such deference “is required because those findings ‘are substantially influenced by [an] opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the ‘feel’ of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy.'” Id. at 424-25 (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964)).

Seized Evidence Warrants Suppression

To reach the legal conclusion that the evidence seized by Officer Sangi warranted suppression, the judge reviewed a line of cases that discussed the indicia of reliability necessary to permit a law enforcement officer to detain and ultimately search an individual based only on information received from an anonymous source. The motion judge specifically cited and discussed the Court’s holding in Rodriguez, supra, as the basis for his conclusion that Officer Sangi’s actions here violated defendant’s constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and under the analogous provision of our State Constitution.

The facts are as follows:

At approximately eight o’clock in the evening on December 22, 2011, Officer Sangi received a radio transmission from a police dispatcher informing him that a 9-1-1 operator had received a call about a particular multifamily complex2 in Asbury Park from a man who identified himself only by his first name “Zack.” The dispatcher told Officer Sangi that Zack had reported “possible drug activity throughout the whole building.” The dispatcher also gave Officer Sangi Zack’s “call back [telephone] number.” Finally, in response to Officer Sangi’s inquiry for more specific information, the dispatcher indicated Zach reported seeing “a lot of people pulling up in a car . . . and then leaving.”  Officer Sangi was very familiar with this particular location, which he described as a four-story “white concrete building” with east and west wings. Although he did not know the exact number but approximately thirty apartments. The main entrance to the building is through a courtyard in the front. According to Officer Sangi, the main entrance door leading to the inside common areas of the building is “supposed” to be locked, requiring non-residents to be “buzzed in.” Officer Sangi testified, however, that this door is “[u]sually . . . not locked, which is a problem.”  As a six-year veteran of the Asbury Park Police Department, Officer Sangi knew this particular building as an established location for narcotics activities. He estimated to have been dispatched to this building “maybe 20” times, in response to calls reporting the sale of illicit drugs. He testified that apartment number five, located on the second floor, had been the center of recent illicit narcotic activities. In fact, the night before the December 22, 2011 incident that is the subject of this appeal, Asbury Park Police Officers responded to an “anonymous caller” reporting narcotic activities in apartment five.  A police incident report admitted into evidence at the motion hearing indicates that at approximately 1:33 a.m. on December 21, 2011, officers responded to reports of disorderly conduct and gained entrance, by consent, to apartment five. The apartment was “filled with smoke at the time.” Defendant and another individual were found inside the apartment. A check for open warrants revealed defendant and the other individual had pending arrest warrants. The officers at the scene took both men into custody.

One of the arresting officers included the following notation on the incident report documenting defendant’s arrest on December 21, 2011: While processing Dawson at headquarters, I felt a small bulge in his waist band. Further inspection of the waist band revealed a clear knotted bag containing an off white rock like substance suspected to be CDS crack cocaine. Dawson was released on bail on the warrant and placed on a summons for the CDS charge.

Against this backdrop, we now return to the involved in this case. Officer Sangi gave a detailed, “blow by blow” explanation of how he encountered defendant outside the door of apartment five, in the hallway area of the building. Officer Sangi emphasized that he at no time searched defendant prior to his arrest, nor did he make any gesture that could have been construed by defendant as menacing or threatening. His fellow narcotic task force partners, Officers Finkelstein and Warraich, stood behind him at all times while he asked defendant whether he had any weapons on his person. The following exchange captures the key parts of Officer Sangi’s testimony that describes the event that led him to arrest defendant:

Q. And just tell us what Mr. Dawson did in response to your request.

A. Well, when he had his hand in his pants, obviously he had something in there. Being it wasn’t a weapon I asked him if he had any narcotics on him, and he said he did.

Q. Okay. And then what did he do – – when he said that, did you put your hands on him at that point?

A. No.

Q. So what did you tell him to do?

A. I asked him to turn it over.

Q. And what did he do?

A. He complied.

Q. And after he did – – what did he give you?

A. Crack cocaine.

Q. Do you recall how it was packaged or?

A. It was in a clear plastic bag, I believe.

Q. You kind of indicated it was twisted at the top?

A. Yes.
At this point, we pause to emphasize that defendant’s account of the events that led to his arrest is significantly different. Defendant testified that Officer Sangi searched him for weapons. According to defendant, Officer Sangi also searched defendant’s friends, who were with him at the time. Defendant claimed Officer Sangi accused him of hiding drugs and aggressively searched his pants pockets without his consent long after Officer Sangi had patted him down to confirm he was not carrying any weapons. Of particular importance, defendant denied he ever made any gestures around his waistband. Despite the irreconcilable versions of events provided by Officer Sangi and defendant concerning how the cocaine was discovered, the motion judge made clear that he found Officer Sangi’s testimony to be credible, and specifically rejected defendant’s testimony as not credible. The following excerpt from the motion judge’s factual findings illustrates this significant point:

Going to the actual situation where Officer Sangi recovered the – – the drugs in this case, the crack cocaine, I don’t – – I don’t believe the – – I believe that his testimony was the credible version that – – in that – – that the – – the Defendant herein actually turned the drugs over once he saw Officer Sangi. I do – – and I do believe he was – – probably was startled once he saw him in the hallway. He had just been arrested the night before, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t have been, but I don’t believe the – – the – – the testimony and I don’t find it credible with regard to the fact of – – of how Officer Sangi threatened him and then said he was going to put him out in the hallway, and – – and basically somewhat of a strip search is basically how it was characterized. I don’t believe that that happened.

Anonymous Tip Lacked Reliability

The motion judge nevertheless suppressed the evidence defendant “turned over” to Officer Sangi because the “anonymous tip” that caused Officer Sangi to confront defendant on the second floor hallway of this building lacked sufficient reliability.

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