Before Judges Skillman and Newman.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, P.J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 22, 1999 - Decided November 18, 1999
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County.
The opinion of the court was delivered by
Defendant was charged in the Pine Hill Municipal Court with driving while under the influence of alcohol, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. Defendant moved to suppress the evidence against him on the ground it had been obtained by means of an unlawful search. Defendant also moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that he could not be found guilty of a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 for operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol in the garage of his own home.
At the hearing on the motions, Officer Browne of the Pine Hill Police Department testified that in the late afternoon of September 14, 1997, he was dispatched to defendant's home to investigate a report of a possible fire. Upon his arrival, the officer observed smoke coming from defendant's garage and smelled burning rubber. The door to the garage started to open, but after it rose approximately three feet, it came down. A little while later, the door opened all the way, and the officer observed a pickup truck with a person in the driver's seat. He started to walk from the street towards the garage, but when he got close, the door closed again. The officer pounded on the garage door and said, "police department, open up the door." A few seconds later, the door opened. As Officer Browne and another officer entered the garage, they observed the tires of defendant's truck spinning, creating smoke, and the front bumper pushing against the rear of the garage. Officer Browne opened the door of the truck and turned off the ignition. The officers subsequently identified defendant as the person in the driver's seat.
Based on this evidence, the municipal court Judge concluded that the officers' entry into defendant's garage and subsequent actions within the garage were valid under the "community caretaker doctrine." The Judge also concluded that a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 can be predicated upon the operation of a motor vehicle within a private garage. In addition, the Judge indicated that the evidence would not support a finding that defendant operated his truck outside the garage prior to the officers' arrival on the scene.
Defendant then pled guilty to the charge, but conditioned his plea on the right to appeal from the denial of his motions. The municipal court Judge sentenced defendant, who had a prior conviction under N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, to a two-year suspension of his driver's license and thirty days of community service. The court also required defendant to spend forty-eight hours in the intoxicated driver's resource center, fined him $500 and imposed the statutorily mandated penalties, fees and costs.
On a de novo appeal, the Law Division Judge concluded that Officer Browne had properly entered defendant's garage to determine whether there was a condition which posed an imminent danger to persons or property and affirmed the denial of defendant's motion to suppress. The Judge also concluded that defendant's operation of a vehicle within his own garage while under the influence of alcohol constituted a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. Accordingly, the Judge affirmed defendant's conviction and reimposed the same sentence.
Defendant argues that the police officers' warrantless entry into his garage violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. The State responds that the entry was valid under the community caretaking doctrine.
"It is now well recognized that in addition to investigating crimes, the police also engage in what has been 'described as community caretaking functions, totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.'" State v. Navarro, 310 N.J. Super. 104, 108 (App. Div. 1998) (quoting Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441, 93 S. Ct. 2523, 2528, 37 L. Ed. 2d 706, 715 (1973)). The performance of these police responsibilities may provide the requisite authority for entry into a private residence without a warrant. State v. Scott, 118 N.J. 406 (1990), rev'g on Dissent, 231 N.J. Super. 258, 269-77 (App. Div. 1989); State v. Navarro, supra, 310 N.J. Super. at 109-10. As former Chief Justice (then Judge) Burger observed in Wayne v. United States, 318 F.2d 205, 212 (D.C. Cir. 1963):
[A] warrant is not required to break down a door to enter a burning home to rescue occupants or extinguish a fire, to prevent a shooting or to bring emergency aid to an injured person. The need to protect or preserve life or avoid serious injury is justification ...