July 20, 2010
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
ALICE O'DONNELL, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 408 N.J. Super. 177 (2009).
SYLLABUS BY THE COURT
(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.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in this PER CURIAM opinion.
Argued April 26, 2010
The judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed substantially for the reasons expressed in the thoughtful and thorough opinion by Judge Skillman. State v. O'Donnell, 408 N.J. Super. 177 (App. Div. 2009). We add only the following.
According to defendant Alice O'Donnell, the question presented in this appeal is "[w]hether the warrantless entry into defendant's home for the specific purpose of searching and seizing evidence in a criminal murder investigation . . . 30 to 45 minutes after the original emergency was over and the police had exited and secured the home" violated constitutional strictures. Stripped to its bare bones, the question presented is whether the 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. Subject to the limitations expressed both by the Appellate Division and below, the answer to that question is "yes."
More than thirty years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States rejected a broad "murder scene" exception to the warrant requirement, Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 392-95, 98 S.Ct. 2408, 2413-15, 57 L.Ed. 2d 290, 299-302 (1978), an exception also repudiated in New Jersey. State v. Faretra, 330 N.J. Super. 527, 531 (App. Div.) (refusing to adopt "crime scene exception" to warrant requirement), certif. denied, 165 N.J. 530 (2000); State v. Damplias, 282 N.J. Super. 471, 481 (App. Div. 1995) ("There is no 'murder scene exception' to the Fourth Amendment." (citing Mincey, supra)), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 607 (1998). In the absence of such an exception, the question of whether, after responding to an emergency call and lawfully entering a homicide scene, a later re-entry into a police-secured location, followed by the plain view seizure of evidence therefrom, constitutes "merely a continuation of [an] initial emergency entry[,]" Arizona v. Mincey, 636 P.2d 637, 649 (Ariz. 1981), cert. denied, 455 U.S. 1003, 102 S.Ct. 1638, 71 L.Ed. 2d 871 (1982), remains "for the . . . courts to resolve[.]" Mincey, supra, 437 U.S. at 395 n.9, 98 S.Ct. at 2415 n.9, 57 L.Ed. 2d at 302 n.9.
When determining the propriety of a warrantless seizure, "[t]he question is not whether the police could have done something different, but whether their actions, when viewed as a whole, were objectively reasonable." State v. Bogan, 200 N.J. 61, 81 (2009) (citing State v. Diloreto, 180 N.J. 264, 278 (2004)). In that vein, the determination of whether any portion of a search -- either the initial entry, the police presence, or the seizure itself -- is "reasonable" under both the Federal and State Constitutions*fn1 implicates relevant long-standing law and practices. See State v. Slockbower, 79 N.J. 1, 19 n.4 (1979) (Schreiber, J., concurring) (noting that courts "on occasion ha[ve] also looked to history to discern whether certain types of government intrusion were perceived to be objectionable by the Framers of the Fourth Amendment" (citations omitted)).
The reasonableness of continuous police presence at the location initially accessed under the emergency aid exception is defined by the facts presented. See State v. Boretsky, 186 N.J. 271, 280 (2006) (defining "three-part test when determining whether the emergency aid doctrine permits a warrantless search" as (1) "[t]he public official must have an objectively reasonable belief, even if later found to be erroneous, that an emergency demands immediate assistance in order to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury; [(2)] the provision of assistance must be the prime motive for the public official's warrantless entry; and, [(3)] any search must be limited to those places that have a nexus to the emergency" (citing State v. Cassidy, 179 N.J. 150, 161 (2004)). Those principles guide our inquiry, and define the circumstances presented here as a continuing emergency.*fn2
In the limited context of this case -- where the police responded to a 9-1-1 call and, in an admittedly proper invocation of the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement, discovered the body of a dead child -- it is relevant that New Jersey law has long required that, in all cases of "[v]iolent deaths, whether apparently homicidal, suicidal or accidental" or "[d]eaths under suspicious or unusual circumstances[,]" N.J.S.A. 52:17B-86(a) and (c), the county medical examiner "shall fully investigate the essential facts concerning the causes of death" and "shall take possession of any objects or articles which, in his opinion, may be useful in establishing the cause of death, and deliver them to the county prosecutor." N.J.S.A. 52:17B-87.*fn3
When, as here, a dead body is discovered by police responding to an emergency call, those statutory provisions are material to determining the reasonableness of post-entry police action. It readily can be said that there is little substantive difference between the statutory mandate that the medical examiner collect evidence and deliver it to the county prosecutor, and trained police investigators performing exactly the same function and to the same effect. No doubt, the legislative scheme governing the acts of the medical examiner, standing alone, is not dispositive of the question of the reasonableness of a police search. That said, long-established law and procedures in respect of government's obligations in dealing with dead bodies when the cause of death has not yet been determined will inform whether a continuing police presence at a death scene was reasonable. Thus, in the absence of a warrant, the analysis should account for the entire continuum of police action, from entry to seizure: whether entry into an otherwise constitutionally protected area is permitted under an exception to the warrant requirement; whether a continued police presence is permissible; and whether, once there, the warrantless seizure is permitted under a recognized constitutional doctrine.
In this case, where the police gained access and seized evidence without a warrant, 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 of a six-year-old child 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 the police to remain on the premises and seize evidence after discovery of the dead body abated the initial emergency -- the conclusion is, to us, 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 thus were constitutionally authorized.*fn4
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO, and HOENS join in this opinion.
Chief Justice Rabner PRESIDING