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State v. Stanton

Decided: June 23, 1993.


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.

Bilder and Baime, JJ. 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 Law Division, suppressing handguns and illegal drugs seized by the police from the defendants' motel room without a search warrant. The Law Division held that the police officers' entry into the motel room constituted a violation of defendants' Fourth Amendment rights. We disagree and reverse.

At 12:22 p.m. on March 12, 1992, Officer Robert Maldonado of the Asbury Park Police Department received a telephone call from an anonymous informant, advising him that Christopher Torres was selling narcotics from room 23 of the Horizon Motor Inn.

The informant also told the officer that several guns were kept in the motel room. Although Officer Maldonado knew of an outstanding bench warrant for Torres, no immediate action was taken on the information received because of police "manpower problems."

After a change of shifts at approximately 12:00 midnight, Sergeant Edward Salerno was apprised of the informant's information and was told to investigate the tip. Due to the possible existence of weapons in the motel room, Sergeant Salerno directed Detective Michael Ham and Officers Thomas McDonald and Frank Sullivan to accompany him.

Upon arriving at the Horizon Motor Inn, Officer Sullivan stationed himself on the west side of the building while the others proceeded to the designated room. With Officer McDonald placed on the left side of the door and Detective Ham situated on the right side, Sergeant Salerno knocked and identified himself as a police officer. It is undisputed that at this point, Derrick Jackson, one of the occupants, pulled back the drapes to the window and, from the vantage point of the hallway, Sergeant Salerno observed a plastic bag containing a white powdery substance on top of a microwave oven in his direct line of sight. Recognizing the substance as cocaine, the sergeant ordered the other officers to enter the room and seize the drugs. The police found sixty bags containing cocaine, two handguns, a box of ammunition, and a thirteen inch knife.

In its oral opinion suppressing the evidence, the Law Division found that the anonymous tip was insufficient to establish probable cause, that no investigative action had taken place during the intervening twelve hours, and that the police, by knocking on the door of the motel room and announcing their presence, had created the exigency which they asserted as justification for the warrantless entry. The court discounted the importance of the outstanding arrest warrant for Torres, finding that the police officer's objective was not to execute an arrest but rather to investigate for drugs.

We conclude that although the exigent circumstances which justified entry into the motel room were "police-created," they arose as a result of reasonable police investigative conduct. State v. Hutchins, 116 N.J. 457, 460, 561 A.2d 1142 (1989). Clearly, the information received from the informant was insufficient to establish probable cause and enable the police to obtain a warrant. Id. at 474, 561 A.2d 1142; see also State v. Novembrino, 105 N.J. 95, 122-29, 519 A.2d 820 (1987). The unverified facts were plainly inadequate to support issuance of a search warrant. State v. Hutchins, 116 N.J. at 474, 561 A.2d 1142. We discern nothing constitutionally offensive in the decision of the police to proceed to the scene and investigate. Indeed, the officers would have been derelict in their duty had they failed to do so. We also perceive nothing unreasonable in the officers' decision to knock on the motel room door and identify themselves. Whether or not this conduct was intended to detect criminal activity, it was not unreasonable or inconsistent with Fourth Amendment principles. We assume that the police routinely respond to complaints of criminal conduct by proceeding to the scene, announcing their presence and making reasonable inquiries. That is their job. We know of no constitutional prohibition barring such conduct.

We recognize that the police could have taken other investigative action. Perhaps they could have embarked upon a surveillance, see State v. Alvarez, 238 N.J. Super. 560, 570-72, 570 A.2d 459 (App.Div.1990), or have engaged in a "controlled purchase" of illicit drugs, see State v. Henry, 255 N.J. Super. 593, 598, 604, 605 A.2d 1113 (App.Div.1992). The point to be stressed, however, is that they were not constitutionally compelled to pursue these options, and the course they chose was not unreasonable. Indeed, it is certainly arguable that a police surveillance or a "controlled purchase" of narcotics poses a greater threat to the right of privacy than the limited action taken by the police here.

Defendants complain that the conduct of the police was intended to generate evidence of criminal activity, and that the observations of drugs cannot be considered ...

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