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State v. O'Donnell

July 20, 2010


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 408 N.J. Super. 177 (2009).


(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).

(NOTE: This Court wrote no full opinion in this case. Rather, the Court's affirmance of the judgment of the Appellate Division is based substantially on the reasons expressed in Judge Skillman's opinion below.)

The Court considers 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 officers responsible for processing the crime scene.

Around 12:45 p.m. on February 22, 2005, the Highland Park Police Department received a 9-1-1 call from a sister of defendant Alice O'Donnell, reporting that there was an unconscious six-year-old child at an apartment in Highland Park. Several Highland Park police officers responded to the scene. After entering the apartment, the officers found O'Donnell's deceased son in a bedroom. One officer, Lieutenant Golden, entered through the back door, then walked into the kitchen to inquire from O'Donnell's sister where he could find the child's mother. The sister directed the officer to the living room, where he found O'Donnell sitting on a couch with dried blood on her hands. Although Lieutenant Golden attempted to question O'Donnell, her responses were largely incoherent.

The supervisor of the Highland Park investigation unit, Sergeant Vassallo, arrived at the apartment shortly after Lieutenant Golden. In the bedroom, he observed small amounts of blood on the bedding near the child's body and a small amount of vomit on the pillow. The Sergeant also observed handwritten notes to the police and family members and pictures in the kitchen. Officers took O'Donnell into custody and transported her to police headquarters. They also called the homicide unit in the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office and secured O'Donnell's apartment by stationing officers at the 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 seized the bedding from the child's bed and the handwritten notes and other evidence Sergeant Vassallo had observed upon his initial entry.

At headquarters, O'Donnell was questioned and gave inculpatory statements. Based on information obtained from O'Donnell, the Prosecutor's Office investigators and Sergeant Vassallo returned to O'Donnell's apartment the next day, February 23, 2005, and seized medications found at various locations in O'Donnell's bedroom.

O'Donnell was indicted for murder. She filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized from her apartment. Based on evidence presented at an evidentiary hearing, the trial court concluded that the police entry into O'Donnell's apartment was justified under the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement and that the seizure of evidence observable at that time was proper under the plain view doctrine. However, the judge concluded that the emergency that justified the initial entry into the apartment did not continue when the officers returned the next day and searched for additional evidence without obtaining a warrant. As a result, the judge denied O'Donnell's motion to suppress as to the evidence seized on February 22, 2005, but granted it as to the additional evidence seized on February 23, 2005.

O'Donnell appealed only the denial of her motion to suppress the evidence seized in her apartment on February 22, 2005. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's decision. 408 N.J. Super. 177 (App. Div. 2009). The panel considered and rejected O'Donnell's argument that because the Highland Park police officers did not immediately seize that evidence, but instead secured the apartment until the arrival of members of the Prosecutor's Office homicide unit, the investigators of that unit were required to obtain a warrant before seizing evidence that had been observed in plain view by the Highland Park police officers. In part, the panel explained that only thirty to forty-five minutes elapsed between when the Highland Park police officers secured the apartment and the Prosecutor's Office investigators arrived, and there was no evidence that the Prosecutor's Office investigators searched any part of the apartment that was not observable upon the initial entry by the Highland Park officers, or that Prosecutor's Office investigators seized any item of evidence in addition to items that could have been seized by Highland Park officers if they had been authorized to complete the investigation.

HELD: The judgment of the Appellate Division, which upheld the trial court's denial of defendant Alice O'Donnell's motion to suppress evidence, is affirmed substantially for the reasons expressed in Judge Skillman's opinion.

1. The Court summarizes the question presented in this case as whether police are allowed to remain at a murder site after a proper entry under the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement, thereby authorizing the lawful seizure of evidence in plain view. The Court emphasizes that, when determining the propriety of a warrantless seizure, the question is not whether the police could have done something different, but whether their actions, when viewed as a whole, were objectively reasonable. (Pp. 1-4)

2. Here, the propriety of the access indisputably was established by the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement, the continued police presence at the site of the dead body was authorized until the scene could be turned over to the medical examiner without a break in custody, and the seizure of evidence of a crime was authorized by the plain view doctrine. In respect of the discrete issue presented in this appeal-whether it was proper for police to remain on the premises and seize evidence after discovery of the dead boy abated the initial emergency-the conclusion is clear: because the corpse remained at what was obviously the death scene and the police had the obligation to retain control of the premises until that control could be transferred to the medical examiner, the police had a continuing right to remain present at the scene. Thus, their continued presence was consonant with constitutional principles, and the plain view seizures performed during that period were constitutionally authorized. (Pp. 2-7)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.


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