On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Middlesex County.
Long, Landau and Lowengrub (temporarily assigned). The opinion of the court was delivered by Landau, J.A.D.
On leave granted, the State appeals from an interlocutory order suppressing evidence "obtained as a result of the warrantless seizure of defendant" Phillip A. Castro (Phillip). The effect of the order is to bar evidence respecting a bag of cocaine which a police officer saw Phillip discard at the home of his uncle Louis Castro.
The State argues that the suppression order should be reversed because the officer's actions were "reasonable and justified in light of the exceptional circumstances in this case." We agree and reverse.
In November 1987, Phillip was an 18-year old senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Iselin. John Belz, a vice-principal, was administrator of the school's Chemical Health Intervention Program, and had received training respecting substance abuse and effects upon individuals who ingest cocaine.
While performing a routine check of a boys' restroom, Belz heard sniffing noises and observed Phillip holding cellophane or wax paper inches from the face of another student who was leaning over the paper. Belz asked Phillip to give him the material he was holding, but "he stuffed whatever it was into his mouth" and fled, ignoring calls to stop. By then, the class change period began and the halls were filled with students. Belz went to the main office and told the principal of his observations. He recognized Phillip, but didn't remember his name and so he tried first to identify Phillip from yearbook
pictures. When this proved unsuccessful, Belz checked the class schedule of the second student, whose name he knew, and summoned him from class.
Belz learned Phillips's name from the student. He also learned that the substance being held to that student's face was cocaine, and was told that "Phil has been doing cocaine in the gym all morning." Belz informed the security counselor, and tried unsuccessfully to reach Phillip's parents. Police were immediately summoned and Victor Monteiro, a uniformed police officer who had also been a safety counselor at a nearby high school, responded shortly after 10:00 a.m. when he came on duty after a shift change. There was a shortage of available officers prior to that time.
It had already been ascertained that Phillip did not attend his second period class, so a computer check of school records was made to ascertain Phillip's residence address. This was listed as 208 Regina Street, the home of Louis Castro. Monteiro was shown yearbook pictures of both Phillip and his cousin James whom he resembled. Belz told Officer Monteiro that Phillip "had shoved something down his throat and it was possibly drugs . . ." This was confirmed by the second student.
Belz testified to his concern that Phillip had put something dangerous "down his throat" and that he relayed that to Officer Monteiro, using two fingers to demonstrate how Phillip forced the packet or bag down his throat. This demonstration was confirmed by Monteiro, who testified that he checked the yearbook pictures and the records, then left for Regina Street between five and ten minutes after he arrived. His experience suggested that Phillip would probably flee to his home or to a familiar place. The Regina Street address was only two or three blocks from the school.
James Castro answered Monteiro's knock. Monteiro testified that he inquired for Phillip and was told he wasn't there. He asked for James' identification to reconcile doubts on this score, and, according to ...