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State v. Keyes

August 3, 2005


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.


(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

This appeal involves a challenge to the validity of a search warrant. In March 2000, a confidential informant gave the Atlantic City Police a tip that a man named "Bilal" was selling cocaine at 236 Rosemont Place in Atlantic City. The address is the ground floor apartment of a two-story row home that is located in the Stanley Holmes Village Housing Project. The informant described the man as black, about twenty-five, five feet, nine inches tall, and 235 pounds. After the police showed the informant a picture of William Keyes, the brother of defendant Edwin Keyes, the informant identified him as Bilal. A criminal background check revealed that William Keyes had previous convictions for drug offenses.

The informant agreed to help police perform a controlled buy at 236 Rosemont Place. The layout of the buildings within the housing project prevented police from gaining a direct view of the entrance to 236 Rosemont Place. As a result, police did not see the informant physically enter the residence. They could observe only the general area of the apartment. The informant met the police at the predetermined location where he told the officers that while inside 236 Rosemont Place, he handed money to Bilal in exchange for cocaine. A field test confirmed that the substance was indeed cocaine.

The police applied for a warrant to search 236 Rosemont Place. Police Detective Robert DeGaetano of the Atlantic City Police Department's Narcotic's Unit submitted a sworn affidavit in support of the warrant. The affidavit described the informant as having proven reliable and that he provided information in the past that resulted in the arrest of numerous suspects. It further described the informant's identification of William Keyes and Keyes's criminal history. The affidavit detailed the controlled drug purchase conducted with the assistance of the informant at 236 Rosemont Place, including the fact that police were unable to establish surveillance directly on the entrance to that apartment. The affidavit recited that police receive numerous complaints from residents about constant drug activity in the 200 block of Rosemont Place. It also stated that it is difficult for police to gain entry to Stanley Holmes Village without being noticed.

The municipal court granted the search warrant for 236 Rosemont Place and police executed the warrant two days later. Upon entering the premises, police discovered four people, including Edwin Keyes, in the residence. Within close proximity to Keyes, police found narcotics paraphernalia and seven plastic bags containing a white rocky substance that field-tested positive for cocaine. Police arrested Keyes and discovered $140 in cash in his possession. The State alleges that Keyes admitted to ownership of the drugs at the scene.

A grand jury indicted Edwin Keyes and the three other individuals on five counts of drug possession and distribution. Keyes moved to suppress the drugs seized pursuant to the warrant, arguing that police did not have probable cause to search 236 Rosemont Place. Following a denial of that motion, Keyes pled guilty to second-degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and third-degree distribution of cocaine within a school zone. He was sentenced to concurrent eight-year terms with forty-five months parole ineligibility on the distribution count.

The Appellate Division reversed the trial court's order denying the suppression motion, finding police lacked probable cause. The panel stated that the detective's affidavit lacked sufficient detail as to the informant's history of truthfulness. It also found that the affidavit failed to set forth the basis for the informant's knowledge about how he learned of William Keyes's alleged cocaine dealing. The panel concluded that the controlled buy was not corroboration of the informant's tip because police did not actually observe the informant enter 236 Rosemont Place. Nor did police take other stops to determine that the apartment was being used by Keyes to sell drugs.

This Court initially granted the State's petition for certification and summarily ordered the Appellate Division to reconsider its decision in light of our holding in State v. Jones, 179 N.J. 377 (2004). Upon reconsideration, the same panel concluded there was no basis to alter its initial view of the matter. This Court again granted the State's petition for certification.

HELD: Based on the totality of the circumstances, the issuing court had a substantial basis to conclude that probable cause existed to search the apartment. Given the other available police corroboration, the officers' inability to witness the informant enter the apartment does not alter the conclusion that police had probable cause to obtain a search warrant.

1. Before a warrant is issued, the judge must be satisfied that there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed or is being committed at specific location. Probable cause is generally understood to mean less than legal evidence necessary to convict though more than mere naked suspicion. The United State Supreme Court has established a totality of the circumstances test for determining whether warrants are based on probable cause, and this Court has adopted that approach. Under the totality of the circumstances test, courts must consider all relevant circumstances to determine the validity of a warrant. (pp. 10-12)

2. Information police receive from confidential informants may serve as a valid basis for a court to find probable cause and issue a search warrant. There must be substantial evidence to support the informant's statements. Specifically, the issuing court must consider the veracity and basis of knowledge of the informant as part of its "totality" analysis. The veracity factor may be satisfied by demonstrating that the informant has proven reliable in the past, but the evidence presented must give the court an opportunity to make an independent evaluation of the informant's present veracity. The basis of knowledge factor analyzes whether the informant obtained his information in a reliable manner. This factor can be satisfied if the nature and details of the tip imply that the informant's knowledge is derived from a trustworthy source. Because statements made by informants are hearsay, independent police corroboration is necessary to ratify the informant's veracity and to validate the truthfulness of the tip. The degree of corroboration required depends on a qualitative analysis of the unique facts and circumstances presented in each case. A successful controlled buy typically will be deemed persuasive corroboration establishing probable cause. (pp. 12-15)

3. The affidavit here did more than simply state that the tip came from a reliable confidential informant. It states that the informant had proven to be reliable by providing information in the past that resulted in the arrest of numerous suspects and the recovery of proceeds from drug sales. Contrary to the defense arguments, an informant's reliability can be based on arrests. Although a more detailed explanation of the informant's reliability -- such as resulting convictions - would have strengthened the motion court's veracity finding, this Court concludes that the affidavit satisfies the veracity factor. (pp. 15-17)

4. The relative lack of detail in the affidavit weakens the basis of knowledge prong. When the tip lacks sufficient detail to establish a basis of knowledge, independent police corroboration may add to the evidentiary weight of the factor. The additional corroboration here included the controlled buy by the informant; the substance obtained during the buy field-tested positive for cocaine; William Keyes's criminal history revealed convictions for manufacturing and distributing drugs; police received complaints from area residents about the constant drug activity around the apartment; police observed known drug users entering and exiting the area; and the affiant has extensive experience and education in drug-related activities. As the Court has stated previously, a controlled buy is generally very persuasive evidence. The Court rejects the defense argument that the controlled buy in this case is not corroborative because the police could not directly observe the informant enter the target residence. As the State argues, had police attempted to approach 236 Rosemont Place, they would have risked exposing their surveillance and endangering the safety of the informant and the officers. Although it would be preferred for police to observe the entry, if it is not reasonably possible to do so, the Court will not micromanage police work by imposing such an impracticable duty. (pp. 17-21)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the trial court's denial of the motion to suppress is REINSTATED.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Zazzali

Argued March 14, 2005

After the police received a tip from a confidential informant that a man was selling cocaine from an apartment in Atlantic City, they attempted to confirm the tip by conducting a controlled drug buy with the informant's help. However, the police were only able to observe the informant enter the area surrounding the target residence, not the dwelling itself. The informant nonetheless returned from the controlled buy with a white powdery substance that field-tested positive for cocaine. After a subsequent investigation revealed that the suspected seller had prior drug-related convictions, the police obtained ...

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