On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cape May County, Indictment No. 08-12-01013.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted August 24, 2011
Before Judges Simonelli and Espinosa.
Following the denial of his motion to suppress, defendant Brandon Jones entered a conditional guilty plea to fourth-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance (marijuana) with intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5a(1) and -5b(12). The trial judge authorized defendant's admission into the Pretrial Intervention Program (PTI). As a result of defendant's failure to successfully complete PTI, the judge sentenced him to a thirty-month probationary term. The judge also imposed the appropriate penalties, fees and assessments, and suspended defendant's driver's license for six months. On appeal, defendant contends that the trial judge should have granted his motion to suppress because the emergency aid doctrine did not apply to justify the warrantless search of his residence. We disagree and affirm.
We derive the following facts from the evidence presented at the motion hearing. Shortly after midnight on October 7, 2008, the Middle Township Police Department received a 9-1-1 call from a resident of Johnstown Lane reporting he heard a gunshot come from the rear of the property next door. Police Officer Armondo Jones and three other officers responded to the property next door, which included a main residence, a garage approximately thirty yards behind the residence to the right, and a small bungalow about fifty yards behind the residence to the left. Officer Jones spoke to the owner of the residence, who believed she heard a gunshot come from the rear of her property. He instructed the owner to stay inside her residence while the police investigated the gunshot. He then proceeded to the rear of the property to "investigate if there was anybody back there . . . ."
Other police officers, including Sergeant Pasquale Conte, had arrived at the scene and saw two occupants inside the bungalow. The officers knocked on the door and announced their presence, but the occupants did not respond. The officers looked through a window and saw someone run to the back of the bungalow and someone else go into a room to the right. After approximately one minute, defendant and the other occupant finally came out through the door.
Based on the totality of circumstances, Sergeant Conte formed a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the gunshot came from the bungalow. As a result, he, Officer Jones and another officer conducted a "protective sweep" of the bungalow to determine if there were any other suspects, injured persons, or weapons inside. During the protective sweep, Sergeant Conte smelled burnt marijuana. Both he and Officer Jones saw marijuana roaches in an ashtray on a coffee table in the living room area. Sergeant Conte's search of the bathroom revealed marijuana and a small clear plastic bag containing two white pills floating in the toilet. Defendant was arrested and admitted that he owned the drugs.
In his motion, defendant argued, as he does here, that the emergency aid doctrine did not apply to the warrantless search of the bungalow. In an oral opinion, Judge Maven made detailed factual findings and concluded that based on the totality of circumstances, the emergency aid doctrine justified the officers' entry into and search of the bungalow.*fn1 This appeal followed.
Our review of a trial judge's factual determination is limited. State v. Robinson, 200 N.J. 1, 15 (2009). In reviewing a motion to suppress evidence, we "'must uphold the factual findings underlying the trial court's decision so long as those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record.'" Ibid. (quoting State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007)). Additionally, factual findings of the trial court are entitled to deference when they "'are substantially influenced by [the judge's] opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the "feel" of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy.'" Ibid. (quoting Elders, supra, 192 N.J. at 244).
When we are satisfied that the findings of the trial court could reasonably have been reached on the record, "[our] task is complete and [we] should not disturb the result, even though [we have] the feeling [we] might have reached a different conclusion were [we] the trial tribunal." State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964). Nevertheless, "if the trial court's findings are so clearly mistaken 'that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction,' then [we] should review 'the record as if [we] were deciding the matter at inception and make [our] own findings and conclusions.'" State v. Mann, 203 N.J. 328, 337 (2010) (quoting Johnson, supra, 42 N.J. at 162). "[We] owe no deference to the trial court in deciding matters of law. When a question of law is at stake, [we] must apply the law as [we] understand it." Ibid. (citations omitted).
The emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement is based upon the principle "that exigent circumstances may require public safety officials, such as the police . . ., to enter a dwelling without a warrant for the purpose of protecting or preserving life, or preventing serious injury." State v. Frankel, 179 N.J. 586, 598, cert. denied, 548 U.S. 876, 125 S. Ct. 108, 160 L. Ed. 2d 128 (2004); see also Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 392, 98 S. Ct. 2408, 2413, 57 L. Ed. 2d 290, 300 (1978). The warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 do not require police officers to "stand by in the face of imminent danger and delay potential lifesaving measures while critical and precious time is expended obtaining a warrant." Frankel, supra, 179 N.J. at 599. Police without a warrant can "'break down a door to enter a burning home to rescue occupants or extinguish a fire, to prevent a shooting or to bring emergency aid to an injured person.'" State v. Stott, 171 N.J. 343, 361 (2002) (quoting State v. Garbin, 325 N.J. Super. 521, 526 (App. Div. 1999); certif. denied, 164 N.J. 560 (2000)).
In addition, the court should avoid viewing the public safety officials' actions "through the distorted prism of hindsight . . . ." Frankel, supra, 179 N.J. at 599. Instead, the emergency aid doctrine only expects public safety officials to have "an objectively reasonable basis to believe----not certitude----that there is a danger and need for prompt action." Ibid.; see also State v. Cassidy, 179 N.J. 150, 161 (2004).
The scope of a search under the emergency aid exception is limited by the emergency or imminent danger that prompted the search. Frankel, supra, 179 N.J. at 599. "A police officer entering a home looking for a person injured or in danger may not expand the scope of the search by peering into drawers, cupboards, or wastepaper baskets." Ibid. However, the plain view exception to the warrant requirement still applies, and "evidence observed in plain view by a public safety official who is lawfully on the premises and is not exceeding the ...