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State v. Stott

April 04, 2002

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
WILLIAM E. STOTT, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 335 N.J. Super. 611 (2000).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

In this appeal, the Court is called upon to evaluate a person's right to be free of unreasonable searches and the right against self-incrimination in a hospital setting.

William Stott was a patient at Ancora State Psychiatric Hospital (Ancora), a facility operated by the New Jersey Department of Human Services (Department) in Camden County. By statute, the Department employs its own police officers who are empowered to act as officers for the detection, arrest and conviction of offenders against the law. Department officers maintain a police station on the first floor of Polplar Hall on the grounds of Ancora, with at least one office in the basement.

Stott was committed involuntarily to Ancora in September 1997 after attempting suicide. A person is subject to involuntary commitment when found to be mentally ill and dangerous to self, others or property. A person so committed may be released only pursuant to administrative discharge procedures or court order. When Stott was admitted, he was nineteen years old and assigned to Ward C in Larch Hall. Stott shared a room with another patient, James Hilliard. The room was a typical residential hospital room, containing a bed, a nightstand, and an individual "wardrobe" to store clothing and other personal effects. The wardrobe may be locked, and each patient has a key for that purpose. Patients assigned to Ward C are not permitted to walk around unsupervised. Similarly, patients cannot leave the ward unless a staff person has let them out. Hospital personnel regularly search the patients' rooms, including their wardrobe.

On October 7, 1997, Stott and Hilliard shared a quantity of heroin and each consumed two Xanax tablets before going to bed. Hilliard died during the night, apparently from a drug overdose. When Stott awoke, he was ushered immediately out of the room by hospital staff. Department police officers sealed off the area by posting a police guard outside Stott's room, locking the door, and permitting entry only by persons authorized by investigators of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office. Hilliard's body was removed from the room shortly after 10:00 a.m. A guard testified that when he left his post at 10:25 a.m., the door to Stott's room remained locked, and only a few staff persons had access to the room.

All patients in the area, including Stott, had been taken to the so-called day room. A detective from the Prosecutor's Office interviewed many of the patients there, including Anthony Fisher, who resided in the room across the hall from Stott. Fisher told the detective that on the previous evening Stott had offered to sell him some Xanax pills. Fisher also stated that Stott told him he kept the Xanax hidden in the hem of a curtain in his room. Based on that information, the detective and a Department police officer proceeded immediately to the room, searched the hem of the curtain and found four Xanax tablets. The officers did not obtain a warrant prior to conducting the search. In his testimony, the detective acknowledged that there was nothing preventing him from posting a guard at the door of the room and securing a warrant.

At 1:55 p.m., the detective approached Stott and asked him whether he "would accompany us over to the police department for an interview on this investigation." Stott was the only one of the twelve patients assembled in the day room to be taken to the police station for questioning. The detective informed Stott that it was a voluntary interview and that he was free to leave. The detective stated that in the early part of the interview, which was not recorded, Stott acknowledged that he was involved with sharing drugs with Hilliard. Stott also admitted attempting to distribute drugs. These admissions prompted the detective to request Stott for a taped statement. At no time did the police inform Stott of his right to remain silent or to have a lawyer present before questioning. At the start of the taped segment, the interviewing officer asked Stott whether he was willing to make a voluntary and truthful statement, and Stott replied, "Yes." The recorded portion of the interview was conducted in the basement office.

Stott gave a detailed account of the preceding evening, stating that he and Hilliard had snorted heroin. Stott claimed that the Xanax pills belonged to Hilliard, and that Hilliard had asked his assistance in locating potential buyers. At the end of the interview, the police officer asked Stott if his statement was given voluntarily, and Stott replied, "For the most part." When the officer asked him to elaborate, Stott said he didn't feel he was ready to speak to police at all that day "but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do." The officer asked Stott whether anyone had forced him to give his statement, and Stott replied, "No."

Stott briefly left Ancora to participate in a drug rehabilitation program. He returned to Ancora under police escort on October 24, 1997. The escort immediately took Stott to the police office where an officer again questioned him without counsel and without advising him of his Miranda rights. Stott reiterated that he and Hilliard had ingested heroin and that they had shared Xanax on the evening preceding Hilliard's death. Stott denied trying to sell Xanax to other patients. About a week later, the officer filed a criminal complaint against Stott. In a subsequent two-count indictment, Stott was charged with possession of a controlled dangerous substance and possession with intent to distribute.

Stott moved to suppress both the Xanax and his incriminating statements. The trial court denied both motions. Stott pleaded guilty to the second count of the indictment, and the trial court sentenced him to five years probation. In a reported decision, the Appellate division affirmed. State v. Stott, 335 N.J. Super. 611 (2000). The Supreme Court granted Stott's petition for certification.

HELD: The warrantless search of Stott's room in this psychiatric hospital was improper, and the seized drugs must be suppressed. Given the absence of Miranda warnings, Stott's statements also must be suppressed.

1. Police must secure a warrant before conducting a search, but only when an accused has a legitimate expectation of privacy in the place searched. There is a lesser expectation of privacy in areas like one's car or office than in one's home. Stott's hospital room had many of the attributes of a private living area. The State emphasizes that the police limited the search to the hem of the curtain. It is the room as a whole, however, that implicates the expectation of privacy in this setting. (Pp. 10-17)

2. The Appellate Division held that Stott had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the area searched, but that exigent circumstances excused the warrant requirement. The Court views the record differently. Although the guard stationed outside Stott's room had left after police removed Hilliard's body, Stott and his fellow patients remained in the day room and the room was locked throughout the relevant period. The detective who conducted the search acknowledged at the suppression hearing that the room could have been secured to enable the police to obtain a warrant. (Pp. 17-22)

3. This disposition is not to be construed as prohibiting all warrantless searches conducted in a hospital setting. For certain purposes, a hospital room is fully under the control of the medical staff; yet for other purposes it is the patient's room. In a psychiatric hospital, it is expected that doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel would inspect all areas to ensure patients are not in a position to harm either themselves or others. This appeal, however, involves police conduct within the framework of a criminal investigation, not medical staff. (Pp. 23-26)

4. The requirement that those questioning suspects warn of certain rights is necessary due to the pressure inherent in the interrogation of individuals in a police-dominated atmosphere. The critical determinant of custody is whether there has been a significant deprivation of the suspect's freedom based on the objective circumstances, including the time and place of the interrogation, the status of the interrogator, and the status of the suspect. Another factor is whether the suspect knew he or she was the focus of the police investigation. The Court concludes that Stott was in custody during his interviews for purposes of Miranda because the interrogations took place in a basement office after he was separated from other patients, there were objective indications that he was a suspect, and his movements were circumscribed as a result of his commitment status. (Pp. 26-34)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED.

JUSTICE LaVECCHIA has filed a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICE STEIN join, expressing the view that the search in this case did not violate Stott's reasonable expectations of privacy and that the warrantless search was justified by the totality of the circumstances.

JUSTICES COLEMAN, LONG and ZAZZALI join in JUSTICE VERNIERO's opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA has filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in which CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICE STEIN join.

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

Argued November 5, 2001

The Court is called on to evaluate defendant's right to be free of unreasonable searches in a hospital setting, as well as his right against self-incrimination. Defendant was a patient at a State-run psychiatric hospital. The police conducted a warrantless search of defendant's room, discovering a small quantity of Xanax, a controlled dangerous substance. On two separate days, the police interviewed defendant without counsel, and without advising him of his constitutional rights. Defendant incriminated himself in both interviews. The courts below determined that neither the search of defendant's hospital room nor the questioning by the police violated defendant's rights. We disagree and reverse.

I.

The relevant facts are derived largely from testimony presented at a suppression hearing conducted by the trial court. Ancora State Psychiatric Hospital (Ancora) is a facility operated by the New Jersey Department of Human Services (Department) in Camden County. By statute, the Department appoints and employs its own police officers who are "empowered to act as [] officer[s] for the detection, apprehension, arrest and conviction of offenders against the law[.]" N.J.S.A. 30:4-14b. Department officers maintain a station in Poplar Hall on the grounds of Ancora. The station is located on the first floor with at least one police office in the basement.

Defendant was committed involuntarily to Ancora in September 1997 after attempting to bleed himself to death. A person is subject to involuntary commitment when he or she is "mentally ill and . . . dangerous to self or dangerous to others or property[.]" N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.9; see also R. 4:74-7 (outlining procedures for civil commitments of adults). A person so committed may be released only in accordance with the administrative discharge procedures set forth in N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.17, or pursuant to court order. N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.16. When admitted, defendant was nineteen years old and assigned to Ward C, Dormitory 216 in Larch Hall.

Within that dormitory, defendant shared a room with another patient, James Hilliard. Defendant's room was a typical residential hospital room, containing a bed and nightstand. In addition to those items, patients are furnished with an individual "wardrobe" to store clothing and other personal effects. The wardrobe may be locked, and each patient has a key for that purpose. Patients assigned to Ward C are not permitted to walk around unsupervised. Similarly, patients cannot leave the ward unless a staff person has let them out. Hospital staff personnel regularly search the patients' rooms, including their wardrobes.

On the evening of October 7, 1997, defendant and Hilliard shared a quantity of heroin and each consumed two Xanax tablets before going to bed. When defendant awoke, he was ushered immediately out of the room by the hospital staff. Defendant later discovered that Hilliard had died during the night, apparently from a drug overdose. When hospital staff persons found Hilliard's body, they called Department police officers and a member of the Camden County Prosecutor's Office to investigate the circumstances of Hilliard's death.

After their arrival, Department officers sealed off the area by posting a police guard outside defendant's room, locking the door to that room, and restricting access to the room to persons authorized to enter by the investigators. One officer testified that by the time he had arrived on the scene at 8:10 a.m., the ward already had been secured by a different officer. At about 8:42 a.m. another officer arrived on the ward; he was joined at approximately 8:45 a.m. by a detective from the homicide unit of the prosecutor's office. A total of five law enforcement officers were present at that juncture. Shortly after 10:00 a.m., the authorities removed Hilliard's body from defendant's room. The police guard testified that when he left his post at about 10:25 a.m., the door to defendant's room remained locked, and only a few staff persons had access to the room.

By the time the detective from the prosecutor's office had arrived, all of the patients in the area, including defendant, had been removed from their rooms and taken to the so-called day room. There, the detective interviewed numerous patients, including Anthony Fisher, who resided in the room across the hall from defendant. A total of twelve patients were questioned over a period of several hours.

At about 12:30 p.m. the detective interviewed Fisher. The patient told the detective that on the previous evening defendant had offered to sell him some Xanax pills. Fisher also stated that defendant had informed him that he (defendant) kept Xanax hidden in the hem of a curtain in his room. Based on that information, the detective and a Department police officer proceeded immediately to defendant's room. They searched the hem of the curtain and found four Xanax tablets. The officers did not obtain a warrant prior to conducting the search.

The detective acknowledged at the suppression hearing that, following the Fisher interview but prior to the search, nothing prevented the police from either repositioning an officer outside defendant's room or obtaining a warrant. The detective simply did not believe that a warrant was necessary. More specifically, the detective was asked, "Now was there anything preventing you at that point from posting a guard at the door of the room and securing a warrant?" He replied, "There was nothing but I didn't feel it was necessary."

At about 1:55 p.m. the detective approached defendant in the day room and asked him whether he "would [] accompany us over to the police department for an interview on this investigation[.]" (We assume that "us" refers to the fact that the detective and at least one other law enforcement officer brought defendant to the police station in Poplar Hall.) Of the twelve patients assembled in the day room, defendant was the only person taken to the police station for questioning. The detective stated that he informed defendant that "it was a voluntary interview" and, further, that he advised defendant more than once that he was "free to leave."

The early part of the interview was not recorded. The detective stated that defendant acknowledged during the interview's unrecorded portion "that he was involved with sharing drugs with the decedent[.]" Defendant also "admitted attempting to distribute drugs." In addition to the detective, at least one Department officer was present during that segment of the interview. The detective further testified that defendant's unrecorded admissions prompted his request for a taped statement.

The parties agree that at no time did the police inform defendant of his right to remain silent or to have a lawyer present before questioning. At the start of the taped segment, however, the interviewing officer asked defendant whether he was "willing to make a voluntary statement and a truthful statement about this matter." He replied, "Yes." The detective did not participate in the recorded portion of the interview. The record is clear that at the detective's request a Department officer conducted that segment of the interview, which took place in the basement police office in the presence of one other officer.

Defendant gave a detailed account of the preceding evening. He said that he and Hilliard had "snorted" heroin between 7:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and then "went out for [a] smoke break." After returning to their room, the two men continued to ingest heroin until defendant helped Hilliard into bed. Defendant then left the room to buy some sodas. Defendant stated that by the time he returned to the room Hilliard had moved from his (Hilliard's) bed into defendant's bed. With Anthony Fisher's assistance, defendant placed Hilliard back into his own bed. Defendant indicated that he himself slept from about midnight until the next morning when staff persons woke him following their discovery of Hilliard's body.

Defendant also described his involvement with the Xanax pills. Defendant stated that Hilliard informed him that he (Hilliard) had the pills available for sale and requested defendant's assistance in locating potential buyers. Defendant indicated that the asking price for the drug ranged from $5 to $10 per tablet, "depending on the patient." Defendant stated that Hilliard also had spoken to Fisher about the pills.

Toward the end of the interview the police officer asked defendant, "has this statement been given voluntarily and of your own free will?" Defendant replied, "For the most part." The officer then asked, "What do you mean for the most part?" Defendant replied, "I don't feel that I was ready to speak to police at all today but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do." When asked again whether any person had forced him to give his statement, defendant replied, "No." After having defendant listen to his recorded statement, the police officer again asked, "Has this statement been given voluntarily and of your own free will?" Defendant replied, "Yes."

Defendant briefly left Ancora to participate in a drug rehabilitation program at a different facility. Under Department escort, defendant returned to Ancora on October 24, 1997. The escort took defendant to the basement police office where an officer again questioned him without counsel and without advising him of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966). Defendant reiterated that he and Hilliard had ingested heroin and that they had shared Xanax on the evening preceding Hilliard's death. Defendant denied trying to sell Xanax to other patients. The escort remained with defendant during the course of that second interview.

The interviewing officer testified that defendant was "a definite suspect for offering to sell the Xanax" at the time of the October 24, 1997, interview. About a week later, the officer filed a criminal complaint against defendant. In a subsequent two-count indictment, defendant was charged with possession of a controlled dangerous substance, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10a(1) (count one), and possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5a(1), -5b(13) (count two).

Defendant moved before the trial court to suppress both the seized Xanax and the incriminating statements that he had given to the police. The trial court denied both motions. Thereafter, defendant pleaded guilty to the second count of the indictment, and the trial court sentenced him to five years probation with certain conditions. In a reported decision, the Appellate Division affirmed. State v. Stott, 335 N.J. Super. 611, 623 (2000). We granted defendant's petition for certification. 167 N.J. 637 (2001). We also granted amicus curiae status to the ...


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