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State of New Jersey v. Miguel Cruz


December 8, 2010


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Indictment No. 09-07-2537.

Per curiam.


Submitted October 27, 2010

Before Judges Fisher and Sapp-Peterson.

The State appeals from the trial court order granting defendant's motion to suppress a handgun retrieved from the roof of a home where parole officers were attempting to apprehend another individual who had absconded from parole. We affirm.

The evidence presented by the State at the suppression hearing was largely undisputed. Responding to a tip, approximately five parole officers went to a residence in Camden hoping to apprehend a parole violator for whom there had been an arrest warrant for narcotics and prostitution offenses outstanding for several months. The address on the warrant was for a different location, but the officers had been told that the parolee was living there. Upon their arrival at the premises, the officers first set up a perimeter in order to control ingress in and egress from the property. Officer David Brooks, a ten-year veteran of the New Jersey State Parole Board assigned to the Fugitive Unit, went to the rear of the property that was secured by a fence and gate. He climbed over the fence into the backyard. Once he secured his position, officers in the front of the residence knocked on the front door. While the officers were knocking on the front door, Officer Brooks heard a window open. He looked to the location and observed curtains from a second-floor window "push out." He witnessed a male look out of an open window, reach out his arm and throw a black object approximately the size of a baseball up onto the roof.

Based upon Officer Brooks' training and experience with narcotics investigations, he suspected that the object was narcotics because he had previously observed narcotics packaged in a similar manner. He maintained his position until the other officers advised that they had not located the parolee but had detained the only Hispanic male present in the residence. Officer Brooks later identified that individual in court as the person he observed discarding a black object onto the roof. Officer Brooks then retrieved a collapsible ladder from his police vehicle, which he used to gain access to the roof above the third floor from the same second-floor window where he had observed the object being thrown onto the roof. As the officer reached the top of the ladder, he observed the "barrel of a handgun pointing at me right where I saw the black object land." He went onto the roof, retrieved the weapon, opened its cylinder and removed six hollow point rounds. He then "walked the rest of the roof" and observed no other black objects.

In granting defendant's suppression motion, the court addressed the three grounds upon which the State sought to uphold the seizure of the weapon: (1) plain view; (2) abandonment; and (3) consent. The court found that the plain view doctrine did not apply because Officer Brooks' observations took place from a location where the officer was not legally positioned to be and the officers lacked probable cause to believe that the black bag contained contraband, rejecting the testimony that the particular area was one of high crime. The court found this was second hand testimony, noting that as parole officers, their job, as distinguished from police officers, is not to investigate drug dealing in an ongoing, pro-active way. Additionally, the judge observed that it could "be said about virtually every neighborhood in the City of Camden, that there's crime that takes place there and much of that crime involves drug transactions."

Further, the court concluded that even if probable cause existed, the warrantless seizure of the black bag was not justified absent exigent circumstances. The court pointed out that at the time the black bag was seized, "[t]here was little likelihood of the object going anywhere[,]" noting that the residence had already been secured, there were only two persons found in the residence, one of whom was being detained, and that it was daylight.

Turning to the State's contention that the black bag had been abandoned, the court focused upon whether the evidence disclosed an intention to abandon the object. The court reasoned that the "most reasonable conclusion here would be that whoever tossed that item had an intention to retrieve it. Otherwise, it would have been just tossed out into the street or tossed in some other haphazard way."

Addressing the consent theory, the court acknowledged that it was a close call but reasoned:

Here, I don't think the State can rely on the consent form. The consent was a consent to search for a parole fugitive. The clear testimony here was that the purpose for going onto the roof was to retrieve an object that the officer said that he saw somebody throw from the house up onto the roof.

Just because a consent form has no limiting language in it, it's clear from the cases that the object of the search is what defines the scope of the search. So, as the famous cases go, if the object of the search is a stolen piano, then police cannot search in the drawers of a dresser, no matter whether the consent forms says that they can search everywhere and anywhere on the property.

. . . If there was a belief that the fugitive was on the roof, I believe the officers would have been justified in this consent, assuming there was apparent authority to give it, to go on the roof to search for the fugitive, but clearly here the object of the search that was being conducted or the seizure, I should say, being conducted by the officers was not the fugitive, and, therefore, I find that the consent does not provide a justification for the warrantless seizure of the object on the roof.

On appeal, the State raises one point, namely, that the trial court erred in limiting the scope of consent to the subjective intent of the executing officer, rather than the objectively reasonable understanding of its terms. We disagree and affirm substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge Edward McBride, Jr., in his cogent and well-reasoned oral opinion of April 20, 2010, and subsequent written opinion dated April 27, 2010. We add the following comments.

"A warrantless search is presumed invalid unless it falls within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement." State v. Cooke, 163 N.J. 657, 664 (2000) (citing State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211, 230 (1981)). One such exception to the warrant requirement is a search conducted pursuant to consent. State v. Domicz, 188 N.J. 285, 305 (2006) (noting that a "search conducted pursuant to consent is a well-established exception to the constitutional requirement that police first secure a warrant based on probable cause before executing a search of a home"). However, the scope of a consent search extends to only that which is objectively reasonable. State v. Hampton, 333 N.J. Super. 19, 29-30 (App. Div. 2000). An objectively reasonable search is defined as the kind of search that is "what 'the typical reasonable person [would] have understood' the scope to include." Id. at 29 (quoting Florida v. Jimeno, 500 U.S. 248, 251, 111 S. Ct. 1801, 1803, 114 L. Ed. 2d 297, 302 (1991).

Here, the consent to search extended to the officers was based upon the resident's understanding that the officers were searching for a human being. Assuming it was objectively reasonable to believe that the parolee may have attempted to exit the home via the roof, the sequence of events that unfolded once officers arrived at the residence did not render Officer Brooks' action "objectively reasonable."

When the officers arrived at the residence, Officer Brooks, before the officers knocked on the front door, immediately went to the rear of the residence, jumped the fence of the property and positioned himself to observe all activity from the rear of the property. He therefore knew at that time there was no one on the roof or attempting to gain access to the roof. Moreover, by the time he retrieved the ladder to gain access to the roof, the search for the parolee had been completed. Hence, the search onto the roof was not to look for the parolee but for the sole purpose of retrieving the black bag which he suspected contained narcotics. Under these circumstances, the search was not objectively reasonable.



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