The State of New Jersey in the Interest of Z.M., a Juvenile
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
Full case can be found here: The State of New Jersey in the Interest of Z.M., a Juvenile
On January 2, 2017, at approximately 11:00 p.m , plaintiff Z.M.’s father went to the Vernon Township police, concerned about his son’s well being. Z.M. did not currently live with his father at this time but still stayed in contact with him. The police were already aware with Z.M. from prior reports of truancy, threatening behavior, anger issues and mental health concerns. His father showed the police a photograph, depicting visible injuries on his son’s face. When Z.M. showed his father that picture he also mentioned the person who assaulted him would “learn his lesson.” Later that same night, the father received a picture from one of his daughters depicting a handgun, a loaded magazine and a large sum of cash with a caption, “shotty for the body.” Z.M. posted this on his Snapchat and the picture got relayed all the way back to the dad. The picture was sent to the police while the father tried to contact his son and his ex-wife. Z.M. was reportedly home and asleep however, Z.M.’s father still was concerned and agreed the police should check on him. Sergeant Dehardt contacted the State Police Barracks in the town where Z.M.’s mother lives and spoke to Trooper Smith. The Sergeant transferred the information the father told him to Trooper Smith. The Sergeant as well requested a welfare check on Z.M. to allay his father’s concerns. Trooper Smith and four other troopers all responded to Z.M.’s mother’s home around midnight. Z.M.’s mother, was fully cooperative and invited the officers into her home and escorted them to the bedroom. The mother knocked on the bed room door but no answer, she later retrieved a tool and opened the door. The officers immediately smelled burnt marijuana as well as raw marijuana. When the cops turned the lights on they saw a bong in the middle of the room and Z.M. sleeping. All the cops saw Z.M.’s black eye and realized he was beaten up pretty badly. The police escorted Z.M. to an adjacent room while Troopers Songui and Sullivan secured the bedroom. Trooper Sullivan testified that from where he was standing, about two or three feet away, he observed one of the dresser drawers were about waist height to be open an inch or two. When glancing at the small gap that was open, the Trooper observed a muzzle of a handgun upside down in the drawer. When the Trooper went to confiscate the weapon, he found cash, drug paraphernalia and other drugs in the drawer. After these findings, Z.M. was detained.
In an oral decision, Judge Michael Gaus denied the motion to dismiss evidence. Finding the search and seizure of the gun, the drugs and the paraphernalia were valid under the emergency-aid, community-caretaking and plain-view exceptions to warrant requirement. Also, Z.M.’s mother provided consent for the troopers to enter the residence along with Z.M.’s bedroom. The judge as well found support under the community-caretaking doctrine to gain access to determine that Z.M., in fact was not in need of further assistance. The judge concluded, “that the troopers were lawfully in the viewing area in order to render aid and to fulfill their community-caretaking role. They were not aware of the specific location of any gun. And they clearly did not enter the premises in order to rely upon plain view as . a pretext. They could have no way of anticipating that the gun would be out in plain view. Obviously a Smith & Wesson handgun being in the partially a-jarred drawer of a sixteen-year old was certainly associated with criminal activity. This gave Trooper Sullivan the authority to open the drawer and that led to the discovery of the other items that were found therein.” Z.M. appeals the decision not suppress the evidence.
On appeal, Z.M. argued the motion judge erred in determining that the evidence seized was admissible due to the emergency-aid and community-caretaking doctrine. Z.M. as well argues the officers extended their stay in his room for no reason and the short time they were in there, they discovered the evidence. The Appellate Court agreed with the motion judge, the troopers had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that immediate assistance was required to protect a life or prevent serious injury. There was a nexus between the emergency and the are searched. The troopers did not expand their search in any aspect to other rooms or locations at the house. Therefore, the Appellate Court affirmed the decision of the trial judge.