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State v. Sullivan

July 26, 2001

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT
v.
MAURICE L. SULLIVAN, JR., DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Verniero, J.

Argued February 27, 2001

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

Based on an informant's tip and two controlled drug buys, the police obtained a warrant to search an apartment occupied by defendant. As a result of the search, the police discovered cocaine and a handgun. After the trial court denied his motion to suppress that evidence, defendant pleaded guilty to drug- and weapon-related offenses. The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that the evidence should have been suppressed because the government lacked probable cause to obtain the warrant. We disagree. We hold that the record adequately justified a finding of probable cause for the police to obtain the warrant, and thus their seizure of the drugs and firearm from the apartment was valid.

I.

The facts are straightforward. On September 27, 1996, the trial court issued a search warrant authorizing the police to search Apartment A at 705 Kensington Avenue in Plainfield. That apartment is part of a three-story building containing six apartments, two on each floor. Apartment A is located on the first floor. The warrant also authorized the police to search a man identified as "Maurice," who the police suspected was selling drugs out of the apartment. The court issued the search warrant based on a sworn affidavit submitted by Christopher M. Gulbin, a detective with the Union County Prosecutor's Office Narcotics Strike Force.

The affidavit revealed that during the week of September 8, 1996, a confidential informant told Detective Gulbin that a man named Maurice, last name unknown, had been selling cocaine out of Apartment A at 705 Kensington Avenue since June 1996. The informant described Maurice "as a Black male, approximately 20 to 22 years of age, approximately 6'2" tall, weighing approximately 160 pounds, with slight facial hair, brown hair and brown eyes." The informant also provided the detective with a telephone number for the apartment and a description of the building.

Later that week Detective Gulbin and two other officers met with the confidential informant at a prearranged location to conduct a controlled drug purchase. The informant was to go into Apartment A and purchase drugs from Maurice. Prior to allowing the informant to enter the building at 705 Kensington Avenue, the detective searched him and his vehicle. (The informant's gender is not disclosed in the record. For convenience, we will use masculine pronouns when referring to the informant.) After ensuring that the informant did not have any money or drugs, Detective Gulbin gave him money to purchase drugs from Maurice at Apartment A.

The informant, while under the constant surveillance of the officers, drove to the rear parking lot at 705 Kensington Avenue. The officers observed the informant until he entered the building, at which point they lost sight of him. About three minutes after the informant entered the main entrance at 705 Kensington Avenue, Detective Gulbin saw him exit the building. The officers then watched the informant drive to a predetermined location to meet with them. At that point, the informant gave Detective Gulbin vials containing a substance that the officer believed was cocaine. Detective Gulbin also searched the informant and his vehicle a second time, again finding no money or other drugs.

The informant told the police that after entering the building, he walked up three steps and knocked on Apartment A's door, which was on his left-hand side. He stated that the door was tan, with a black "A" affixed to it. The informant explained that after entering the apartment he talked to Maurice about drugs, and then gave Maurice money in exchange for the vials. Subsequent testing by the Union County Prosecutor's Office confirmed that the substance in the vials was cocaine.

The next week Detective Gulbin and another officer met with the informant to carry out a second controlled drug purchase. That second purchase proceeded in the same fashion as the first, with Detective Gulbin first searching the informant and the informant's vehicle. After determining that the informant did not have any drugs or money, the detective gave him money and maintained constant surveillance of him until he entered the apartment building at 705 Kensington Avenue. About four minutes after the informant entered the building, the officers saw him exit and proceed to a prearranged location. There, the informant gave Detective Gulbin vials containing what the police officer believed was cocaine, and explained that after entering the building he had gone to Apartment A and purchased the vials from Maurice. Again, subsequent testing by the Union County Prosecutor's Office confirmed that the substance in the vials was cocaine.

Detective Gulbin included in the affidavit his efforts to corroborate the informant's tip, which consisted of a review of records from the Public Service Electric and Gas Company (PSE&G). PSE&G's records listed Sonya Sullivan as the subscriber at Apartment A since May 14, 1996. Those records also indicated that the "contact telephone number" for Apartment A was the same number as the one that the informant had given to the detective and had alleged was Maurice's number at the apartment.

Based on those facts, the trial court issued a warrant authorizing the police to search both defendant's person and the apartment. While executing the warrant in October 1996, the police seized cocaine and a handgun. In February 1997, a Union County grand jury charged defendant with third-degree possession of cocaine, third-degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and third-degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute within a school zone. Defendant also was charged in a separate indictment with second-degree possession of a weapon by a previously convicted person.

Defendant thereafter moved to suppress the evidence seized by the police. The trial court denied defendant's motion, concluding that Detective Gulbin's affidavit established probable cause and that the search warrant was thus valid. Following that ruling, defendant pleaded guilty to second-degree possession of a firearm by a previously convicted person and third-degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute within a school zone. The court sentenced defendant to an aggregate sentence of eight years imprisonment with a three-year period of parole ineligibility.

Before the Appellate Division, defendant argued that the evidence against him should have been suppressed because the police lacked probable cause in obtaining the warrant and that he had received an excessive sentence. In an unreported opinion, the panel reversed the trial court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress the evidence, concluding that the detective's affidavit did not support a finding of probable cause to sustain the search. In view of that conclusion, the court did not address defendant's claim in respect of his sentence.

This Court granted the State's petition for certification. 165 N.J. 530 (2000). The Court also granted the motion of the Attorney General for leave to appear as amicus curiae. (We will refer to the State and the ...


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