On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division Cumberland County, Indictment No. 06-10-996.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Payne and Waugh.
Defendant Louis Stewart appeals his conviction, following a guilty plea, for second-degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(a)(1), -5(b)(2). Prior to entering the plea, Stewart moved unsuccessfully to suppress evidence seized as the result of a warrantless search at 105 Bank Street in Bridgeton. On appeal, Stewart contends that the motion should have been granted and the evidence suppressed. We disagree and affirm.
We discern the following facts from the record made during the evidentiary hearing on the motion to suppress, which was held on August 10 and 16, 2007.*fn1 Detective Louis Santiago of the Bridgeton Police Department was on duty on June 10, 2006. At that time, Santiago was with the Anti-Crime Team (ACT), which is a "plain clothes assignment dealing with street level narcotics and quality of life issues." Santiago was working the night shift. His assigned area was the 100 block of Bank Street. Santiago testified that in June 2006, the 100 block of Bank Street was "laced with illicit narcotic activity, prostitution, [and] robberies."
Santiago and other members of the unit walked through an alleyway towards 110 and 112 Bank Street. Once they arrived at that point, they began to watch 105 Bank Street, which they knew to be the residence of Gloria Hicks. Santiago was familiar with Hicks from previous calls to her residence. Three weeks prior to the night in question, Hicks had come to the police station and reported that she had been assaulted by James McNair at her home. She told the officers that she had a bad drug habit and that "things were getting out of control in her residence."
Santiago told Hicks that he would from time to time check up on her to make sure that everything was alright at her home. Santiago positioned himself across the street from 105 Bank Street and observed it for fifteen to twenty minutes. He saw people going into 105 Bank Street through the front door and, on occasion, the back door. After a very brief time, the individuals would leave Hicks's residence and go across the street to 108 Bank Street. They would remain at 108 Bank Street for a few moments and then return to 105 Bank Street. They would knock and, when the door opened, enter 105 Bank Street.
After watching the activity described above, Santiago and other members of the team crossed the street to observe 108 Bank Street. After making further observations, they went to the back of the house directly across from 110-112 Bank Street - one house north of 105 Bank Street. From that location Santiago watched the back of 105 Bank Street and observed "a continuation of the pedestrian traffic in and out of the residence."
According to Santiago, the activities he observed were consistent with drug dealing. Santiago decided to go to the back door, knock, and attempt to speak with Hicks. However, as Santiago and Detective Kirsten Loew got to the landing of the back door, Bobby Taylor and McNair approached the back door from the front of the house. As Taylor stepped onto the landing, he looked over and saw Santiago, who was himself approaching the landing. Santiago described Taylor's reaction as follows:
He looked at us, his eyes opened up and he stepped back, and he began to mumble under his voice. I couldn't understand what he was saying. Bobby Taylor looked at us, and again, he had an expression of shock on his face.
Without knocking, Taylor opened the back door and walked into the house. The door stayed open, but McNair stood on the landing without entering the house. Santiago walked up to the door, stood at the doorway, and looked into the house, but did not cross through the doorway at that point.
As Santiago was approaching the doorway, he had observed people sitting in the living room. Once the back door was opened, he was able to see the range, the kitchen sink, and a counter. Santiago saw a plastic bag and a scale on the counter. He saw ...