March 6, 2008
CHESTNUT PARK APARTMENTS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
LATIFAH SNOWDEN, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Essex County, LT-040320-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 29, 2008
Before Judges Grall and Chambers.
Plaintiff Chestnut Park Apartments, a landlord, appeals from the dismissal of its summary dispossess action against one of its tenants, defendant Latifah Snowden. We affirm.
Plaintiff brought this eviction action pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(p), which permits removal of a tenant if a landlord proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the tenant has used, possessed, manufactured, dispensed, or distributed a controlled dangerous substance (as defined in the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act of 1987, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-1 to -29) within the leased premises, subject to certain exceptions not applicable here.
The record indicates that on November 11, 2006, the East Orange police executed two search warrants in plaintiff's multifamily residential apartment building; one warrant was for defendant's apartment. Defendant was away at the time and did not return until two days later. During the raid, defendant's cousin entered defendant's apartment, was detained by police, and seated on the couch. After he was released, seven glass vials of cocaine were found in the couch, and he was thereafter arrested and charged with possession of cocaine. Plaintiff is not seeking to evict defendant based on her cousin's possession of the cocaine. Rather, plaintiff contends that defendant must be evicted based on the controlled dangerous substances found during the raid in the bedroom of the apartment, a place where the cousin did not go. Detective Blakey, one of the officers who executed the search warrant, testified that a fellow officer called him into the bedroom where seven vials of cocaine and two bags of marijuana were laying on the bed in an otherwise neat apartment. While the testifying officer contended that charges were pending against defendant and that she had an outstanding arrest warrant arising from the discovery of the drugs, he had no documentation to support that contention. Defendant indicated that when she went to the East Orange Police Department, she was told that no arrest warrant was outstanding against her. Indeed, the trial judge's staff search of court records did not reveal any arrest warrant outstanding for her.
In reaching his decision dismissing the summary dispossess action, the trial judge made the following findings:
I find the following - first of all Ms. Snowden strikes me, and I could be wrong, as someone who is anti-drug. Her cross-examination was extremely effective. Now, Ms. Snowden, if you are fooling me, if you really are drug dealing and if you are allowing people to come into your apartment to sell drugs or even family members or relatives, if you are allowing them to come into your apartment to sell drugs shame on you. But I am going to accept what you told me as true . . . for two reasons. One, you were not arrested or charged with any crime. Number two, I believe everything that you told me. Okay. I think that you are telling me the truth. You sound like somebody who does not want to have drugs in their building. . . .
Now, I am satisfied based on the testimony of all of the witnesses in this case. The witnesses for the plaintiff, Detective Blakey and . . . Ms. Dupree.*fn1 Neither one of them were able to testify that they saw Ms. Snowden with any drugs on her. Ms. Dupree acknowledges that despite the fact that she has a surveillance camera that is trained on Ms. Snowden's door, she has never seen any, not an ounce of activity in and out of her apartment. She acknowledges that Ms. Snowden came down to her immediately to find out what was going on. That does not sound like somebody who is guilty. Her conduct does not strike me as . . . the conduct of someone who would be guilty of possessing drugs. Even by a preponderance of the evidence.
Detective Blakey did not see the drugs in the bedroom until he was called in by another police officer who found the drugs. Therefore, he does not know of his own personal [knowledge] whether or not those drugs were in the bedroom or anywhere else, he could only testify to what another police officer told him. I am satisfied that as a matter of fact and as a conclusion of law that . . . the plaintiff ha[s] not proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Ms. Snowden was at any time, in possession of any drugs or intended to either possess, sell or distribute any drugs. Accordingly, I find that the plaintiff ha[s] failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that in fact Ms. Snowden violated the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act and therefore the complaint against Ms. Snowden for purposes of whatever happened on . . .
November 11, 2006, is hereby dismissed.
Our review is limited, since we may not overturn the factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judge unless we are "convinced that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). In a case in which the evidence is largely testimonial, we must give special deference to the factual findings of the trial judge, who is better able to determine the credibility of the witnesses due to his opportunity to hear and observe their testimony. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 412 (1998).
Plaintiff argues that it proved by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant was in constructive possession of the cocaine and marijuana found by the police in her bedroom on November 11, 2006. Plaintiff maintains that the trial court should have found the police officer's testimony more credible than defendant's because the officer had no motive to lie while defendant did have a motive to lie. As noted above, the trial court found that defendant's testimony was credible and that she did not seem to be a person who would want drugs in the building. We defer to that finding of the trial judge. Because a trial court "'hears the case, sees and observes the witnesses, [and] hears them testify,' it has a better perspective than a reviewing court in evaluating the veracity of witnesses." Cesare v. Cesare, supra, 154 N.J. at 412.
Plaintiff also contends that defendant admitted that she had a bag of marijuana for her personal use and that admission is sufficient to warrant eviction under the statute. However, defendant's statement was made in the context of questioning the officer about the quantity of marijuana found in the apartment; defendant was attempting to ask if the quantity indicated personal use or distribution. Defendant's somewhat inarticulate question need not be construed as an admission, and the court apparently did not do so.
After carefully reviewing the record, giving due regard to the credibility findings made by the trial judge, we find no basis to overturn his decision.