On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County.
Baime and Keefe. The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.
We granted the State's motion for leave to appeal from an order of the Superior Court, Law Division, suppressing approximately one ounce of cocaine and related drug paraphernalia seized by the police in a warrantless search of defendant Eric Alvarez's hotel room. The Law Division judge found that the search was not supported by probable cause and that the evidence was not within the plain view of the arresting police officers prior to their entry into the room. The State asserts that the Law Division judge's findings of fact are not supported by sufficient credible evidence present in the record. Alternatively, the State argues that the facts, as found by the Law Division judge, were sufficient to establish probable cause.
The salient facts can be briefly summarized. At approximately twelve noon on November 23, 1988, Detective Samuel
Thomas, a member of the Atlantic City police department, was on duty in uniform when he was approached by a woman who reported that there was a disturbance relating to drugs on the fourth floor of the nearby Aristocrat Hotel. Armed with that information, Detective Thomas immediately proceeded to the hotel where he was told by the desk clerk that Room 402 was the only one occupied and that, although she was not aware of a disturbance, there had been numerous telephone calls and "foot traffic" to and from that room. Scanning the desk register, Detective Thomas noticed that Room 402 was registered to defendant Alvarez. Detective Thomas was familiar with Alvarez from a prior narcotics investigation.
His suspicions aroused, Detective Thomas "called for a backup." Three plain clothes detectives who had been working nearby responded. The four officers proceeded to the fourth floor. From their vantage point in the hallway, the detectives heard a male voice from Room 402 state "if we sell one more ounce, we'll have enough to re-up." Based upon their training and experience, the detectives believed that there was an ongoing scheme to distribute drugs from the room and that after making another sale, the perpetrators would attempt to "resupply."
After knocking on the door, one of the officers, in a falsetto voice, identified himself as the maid. According to the detectives, when the door to the room was opened, they observed narcotics and drug paraphernalia in plain view. They then entered the room, seized the contraband and arrested the occupants.
The principal factual issue presented at the hearing was whether the detectives observed the drugs prior to their entry into the hotel room. We need not recount the evidence presented with respect to that question in great detail. Suffice it to say, the testimony of the four detectives deviated on that critical point.
Based upon the foregoing evidence, the Law Division judge found that the detectives had already entered the room when they observed the narcotics and drug paraphernalia. The judge determined the facts known to the officers prior to their entry into the hotel room were not sufficient to establish probable cause. Concluding that the detectives entry into the room was unlawful, the judge ordered the suppression of the evidence seized.
Preliminarily, we reject the State's argument that the Law Division judge erred in finding as a fact that the detectives entered the hotel room prior to observing the contraband. Although the issue was hotly contested, we are entirely satisfied that the findings made by the judge could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record. State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 165, 199 A.2d 809 (1964). In this respect, we are obliged to review the record in light of the State's contention, but not initially from the point of view of how we would decide the matter if we were the court of first instance. Id. at 161, 199 A.2d 809. The aim of our review is to determine whether the judge's findings are supported by evidence in the hearing transcript. Id. at 162, 199 A.2d 809. In making that determination, we are duty-bound to give deference to those findings which are substantially influenced by the judge's ...