On appeal from an interlocutory order of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Indictment No. 10-08-2390.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 10, 2012 -
Before Judges Carchman and Baxter.
By leave granted, the State appeals from a May 6, 2011 Law Division order granting the suppression motion filed by defendants Derrick Brown, Leroy Carstarphen and Kareem Strong. The sole issue presented in the Law Division, and before us on appeal, is whether the Camden police possessed a reasonable basis to conclude that the Camden rowhouse in question was abandoned, thereby entitling the police to search the interior of the premises without a search warrant. Because the motion judge's findings of fact are well supported by the record, and his legal conclusions sound, we affirm.
During the first week of May 2010, Trooper Kurt Kennedy of the New Jersey State Police received information from two confidential informants, whom he deemed reliable, and from a concerned citizen, that defendant Kareem Strong was conducting hand-to-hand narcotics transactions and distribution of controlled dangerous substances (CDS) from 820 Line Street in Camden. The trooper described the area surrounding 820 Line Street as a "[h]eavy narcotics area." The confidential informants also reported that Strong had a sawed-off shotgun, was using the building at 820 Line Street as a stash location for the distribution of CDS, and was using a key to lock and unlock the building.
Based on the information received, Trooper Kennedy, along with Trooper Moore,*fn1 conducted undercover surveillance of 820 Line Street to verify the information supplied by the three sources. On May 12, 2010, Trooper Kennedy observed a total of four hand-to-hand narcotics transactions in which unidentified individuals approached Strong and handed him paper currency, which he placed in his pants pocket, after which Strong went up the steps of 820 Line Street and opened the padlocked door with his key. After remaining inside the building for approximately thirty seconds, Strong returned to the sidewalk and handed the unknown individuals a small item. While Strong was inside 820 Line Street, defendant Carstarphen was observed continually looking up and down Line Street as if checking to see if police were approaching.
Five days later, on May 17, 2010, Trooper Kennedy conducted another undercover surveillance at that location, and observed an additional fourteen hand-to-hand narcotics transactions all involving Strong, Brown and Carstarphen. During each of the fourteen transactions, Strong used his key to unlock the padlock securing the front door of the building.
Based on the surveillance activity of May 12 and May 17, 2010, the troopers moved in and arrested all three defendants. Trooper Gregory Austin, who was part of the surveillance team, searched Strong and removed the set of keys that Strong had been using to open the front door of 820 Line Street. After arresting the three defendants, Trooper Austin and the other members of the surveillance team walked from the front of 820 Line Street to the rear of the property and, according to Trooper Austin, made the following observations:
[T]he front of the house had some broken windows in it. The meter was missing, the electric meter, which is a good indication the house is not being -- it's, you know, either abandoned or unoccupied.
Looking through the windows, the broken windows, you could see inside, see the trash all over the place inside the -- inside the house.
We even had other . . . arresting [officers] go around back. They [made] an observation of the back door being propped. It was off -- actually, off the hinges, but being propped up by something inside the house.
Based upon the missing electric meter, the trash strewn about inside the house, the broken windows in the front of the house, and the backdoor being off its hinges and propped up, the troopers concluded that the house was abandoned. In making that determination, they also relied upon the remarks of the confidential informants and the concerned citizen, all of whom believed the house was abandoned, as well as Trooper Kennedy's similar belief. Trooper Kennedy provided no basis for that conclusion, other than asserting that he ...