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State v. O'Donnell

July 2, 2009

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ALICE O'DONNELL, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 05-05-0617.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman, P.J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Argued April 28, 2009

Before Judges Skillman, Graves and Grall.

The issue presented by this appeal is whether evidence observed in plain view during a police entry into a residence to provide emergency aid may be seized without a warrant even though there is a short delay between the emergency aid entry and the seizure of evidence by other police officers responsible for processing the crime scene. We conclude that the seizure of evidence without a warrant is permissible under these circumstances because the entry into the residence by police officers responsible for processing crime scene evidence constitutes a reasonable continuation of the initial entry to provide emergency aid.

Around 12:45 p.m. on February 22, 2005, the Highland Park Police Department received a 9-1-1 call from one of defendant's sisters, who reported that there was an unconscious six-year-old child at 345 Crowells Road in Highland Park. A number of Highland Park police officers immediately responded to the scene.

Upon their arrival, the police officers were met at the entrance to defendant's apartment by one of defendant's sisters, who was "screaming and yelling to the effect of he's dead." The officers entered the apartment, where they found defendant's deceased son in a bedroom.

One of the Highland Park police officers, Lieutenant Scott Golden, entered the apartment through the back door, went into the bedroom where he saw the deceased child, then walked into the kitchen and asked one of defendant's sisters where he could find the child's mother. She directed Lieutenant Golden to the living room, where he found defendant sitting on a couch with dried blood on her hands. Lieutenant Golden attempted to question defendant about what had happened to her son. She told him that she had given him Benadryl the night before. However, her other responses were "just incoherent[] rambling."

Sergeant Joseph Vassallo, the supervisor of the Highland Park investigation unit, arrived at the apartment shortly after Lieutenant Golden. When he entered the bedroom, he observed small amounts of blood on the bedding near the deceased's body and a small amount of what appeared to be vomit on a pillow. In addition, Sergeant Vassallo observed handwritten notes to the police and family members and pictures in the kitchen.

Based on the information obtained in their initial investigation, the Highland Park police officers took defendant into custody and transported her, together with her two sisters, to police headquarters. They also called the homicide unit in the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office and secured defendant's apartment by stationing police officers at the front and back entrances.

Investigators from the Prosecutor's Office arrived thirty to forty minutes later and entered the apartment with Sergeant Vassallo. At this time, the body of the deceased child was still in the apartment. The Prosecutor's Office investigators subsequently seized the bedding from the bed in which the child had been lying and the handwritten notes and other potential evidence Sergeant Vassallo had observed upon his initial entry into the apartment.

Thereafter, the Prosecutor's Office investigators and Sergeant Vassallo went to the Highland Park police headquarters, where they participated in questioning of defendant that resulted in her making inculpatory statements. Based on information obtained from defendant, the Prosecutor's Office investigators and Sergeant Vassallo returned to defendant's apartment the next day, February 23, 2005, and seized additional evidence, specifically medications found at various locations in defendant's bedroom.

Defendant was indicted for murder, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a). Defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized in her apartment and her inculpatory statements. The trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing, at which testimony was presented by Lieutenant Golden, ...


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