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State of New Jersey v. William D. Rowley


April 9, 2012


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cumberland County, Indictment No. 09-08-1914.

Per curiam.


Submitted March 6, 2012

Before Judges Messano and Yannotti.

After his motion to suppress evidence was denied, defendant William D. Rowley pled guilty to third-degree unlawful possession of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS), contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1). Defendant appeals from the judgment of conviction entered on June 11, 2010. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

At approximately 7:45 a.m. on June 21, 2009, the Margate police received a call reporting that a man was asleep on a bus and could not be awakened. Officer Jennifer Queeney (Queeney) responded to the bus stop and spoke to the driver. She attempted to wake the sleeping passenger by touching his shoulder and shaking him slightly. Queeney identified defendant as the passenger.

Defendant did not wake up. Queeney continued to try to wake defendant by shaking him harder and raising her voice to the point where she was yelling at him. He did not wake up. This continued for about five minutes. Queeney was concerned. She also detected the odor of alcohol "coming off" of defendant, which made her worried for his safety.

Eventually, defendant awakened. According to Queeney, defendant was incoherent. He was not sure of where he was. Queeney believed that he was intoxicated. She said that his eyes were droopy and bloodshot, and his clothes "were a little disheveled." Queeney asked defendant several times if he would give her his name. He was reluctant but eventually said his name was "William Williams." He also gave her a date of birth. Queeney gave this information to Officer Lee (Lee), who attempted to confirm the name and birth date, but he could not do so.

At some point, Queeney and defendant exited the bus. Lee and Officer Francis Marciante (Marciante) attempted to get a different name and date of birth from defendant. Defendant was "reluctant and evasive" with Lee and Marciante. Defendant stated that he had already given Queeney the information.

The officers checked a social security number that defendant had provided, but no information came back on the mobile computer in the car or from the police dispatcher. Defendant told the police he had a California driver's license. Using their mobile computer terminals, the officers checked motor vehicle records in California. Nothing came back on "William Williams."

The officers also ran computer checks for New Jersey databases, and the dispatcher checked other computer databases, including the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). They were not able to confirm the information that defendant had provided. The officers asked defendant to "be honest with" them, but they "basically got the same information back[.]" The officers said that if defendant had provided accurate information, it would have been confirmed through the computer checks.

Lee and Marciante decided to take defendant back to the police station "to figure out who he was." Queeney transported him there. As a safety measure, defendant was handcuffed in the police car. The police had not charged defendant with any offenses at that point. Queeney said that defendant "was just being held . . . for identity purposes." She also said that the officers were not investigating any criminal activity.

Queeney further testified that the officers wanted to know who defendant was because he was in a "highly intoxicated" state and they did not want "to let him go and wander off by himself." The officers were also concerned that defendant might have some mental impairment. Queeney said that defendant could have been in danger. She stated that, as a police officer, her duty was to ensure that the individual she is dealing with is safe and "gets to where they need to go, [so] that no danger occurs to them." At the station, Queeney turned defendant over to Lee and Marciante.

Marciante testified that defendant was taken to the police station because they were making further efforts to learn his identity, and because they were concerned that he was impaired. Marciante said that it is "not a good idea" for a community caretaker to let individuals in that condition wander the streets. He said, "Something could happen to them and then it's on us." Marciante also said that community caretaking is part of the responsibility of a police officer.

At the police station, defendant's behavior alternated between confused and aggressive. When the officers again attempted to confirm his identity, he became agitated. The police suggested that they could attempt to identify him by obtaining his fingerprints and using a machine to search the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). Defendant said they would have to "fight" and "mace" him to get him "on that machine."

Defendant then gave the police an address in Vineland. An officer told defendant they were going to have to place him in a cell while they attempted to confirm his identity with the Vineland police. The officers contacted the Vineland police and provided them with the name and date of birth that defendant had given to them. While the check was taking place, an officer asked defendant why he was objecting to the use of the AFIS machine. He said, "you'll find me out, I have warrants."

The police arrested defendant for hindering his own apprehension. The officers then searched defendant incident to his arrest. They found he was in possession of two bags, which were later determined to contain CDS. He was charged with the possession of CDS. Defendant then provided the police with correct information as to his identity. The police checked that information and defendant's identity was confirmed, as was the fact that he had outstanding warrants.

The trial court found that defendant's encounter with the police was from the outset "totally divorced from a criminal investigation." The court pointed out that the officers were trying to learn defendant's true identity but at some point also began to investigate whether defendant was lying to them when he gave them a name, date of birth and social security number that could not be verified. The court concluded that "this was essentially a community care-taking situation which turned into a criminal investigation and the charges that followed." The court denied the motion to suppress.

Following the denial of his motion, defendant pled guilty to third-degree possession of CDS. He admitted that on the morning of June 21, 2009, he was on the bus in Margate and knew he had cocaine in his possession. He also acknowledged he had been on probation when he committed the offense. As part of the plea agreement, the State agreed to dismiss the charges of hindering apprehension and possession of less than fifty grams of marijuana.

The court sentenced defendant to a flat, three-year term of incarceration, concurrent to sentences imposed on certain offenses committed in Cumberland County. The court ordered defendant to pay a $1000 penalty for Drug Enforcement Reduction, a $50 assessment for the Victims of Crime Compensation Board, a $50 laboratory fee, and a $30 assessment for the Law Enforcement Officers' Training and Equipment Fund. The court also ordered a six-month suspension of defendant's driving privileges. The court entered a judgment of conviction dated June 11, 2010. This appeal followed.

Defendant raises the following argument for our consideration:


The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution protect individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. State v. Bogan, 200 N.J. 61, 72 (2009). These constitutional provisions generally require that, "before conducting a search, government officials [must] . . . obtain a warrant founded on probable cause," unless the search is justified by one of the well-established exceptions to the warrant requirement. Id. at 72-73 (citing State v. Frankel, 179 N.J. 586, 597-98, cert. denied, 543 U.S. 876, 125 S. Ct. 108, 160 L. Ed. 2d 128 (2004)).

"Courts have allowed warrantless searches under the Fourth Amendment when police officers have acted not in their law enforcement or criminal investigatory role, but rather in a community caretaking function." Id. at 73 (citing Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 439-48, 93 S. Ct. 2523, 2527-31, 37 L. Ed. 2d 706, 713-18 (1973)). Community caretaking includes the performance of "a wide range of social services, such as aiding those in danger of harm, preserving property, and 'creat[ing] and maintain[ing] a feeling of security in the community.'" Ibid. (quoting Debra Livingston, Police, Community Caretaking, and the Fourth Amendment, 1998 U. Chi. Legal F. 261, 271-72 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).

Courts apply a standard of reasonableness in determining whether the police acted lawfully in a community caretaker encounter with a member of the public. State v. Diloreto, 180 N.J. 264, 276 (2004). Furthermore, the trial court's findings of fact are entitled to deference. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999) (citing State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964). Such deference is particularly appropriate where, as here, the findings have been "'substantially influenced by [the court's] opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the "feel" of the case[.]" Id. at 471 (quoting Johnson, supra, 42 N.J. at 161-62).

In our view, the record supports the trial court's determination that the officers' actions were a reasonable exercise of their caretaker function. Here, the police sought to learn defendant's true identity in order to provide him with assistance, due to his apparent intoxication and possible mental impairment. Defendant also provided the officers with a name, date of birth, and social security number that could not be verified. We are convinced that, under the circumstances, the officers acted reasonably in transporting defendant to the police station and detaining him there while they made further efforts to learn his true identity.

The Supreme Court's decision in Diloreto supports this determination. There, the police discovered the defendant apparently asleep in a parked car. Diloreto, supra, 180 N.J. at 269. Based on information they had received from the NCIC, the police believed the defendant was a missing person who was in danger. Id. at 269-70. They woke the defendant, spoke with him and then asked him to exit the car. Id. at 272. The police placed the defendant in the police car while they awaited confirmation of his status as the missing person and, before doing so, patted down his outer clothing, finding a loaded ammunition clip in his pocket. Id. at 272-73.

The Supreme Court determined that the decision to place the defendant in the police car and to pat him down "was a proper caretaker response to the information confronting them." Id. at 278. The Court noted that the car had been parked at an odd angle, exhaust fumes had been observed emanating from the car and the car's windows were fogged, obstructing the view of the interior. Ibid. The Court additionally noted that one of the officers made observations which suggested that the occupant was not actually asleep, and attempted suicides had occurred in the area. Ibid. Moreover, the officers believed that the defendant was the person identified in the NCIC report. Ibid.

The Court stated that the officers did not perform their community caretaker functions "as a pretext for a criminal investigation." Id. at 280. The officers' testimony showed that they had acted out of concern for the defendant's safety when they sought to place him securely in the police car. Ibid. The officers also reasonably took steps to protect their own safety.

Ibid. The Court concluded that the officers "did not impermissibly cross the line from caretakers to investigators when they discovered the loaded ammunition clip in the process of securing defendant in the police vehicle." Id. at 280-81.

The encounter at issue here is substantially similar. The trial court found that the officers testified credibly. As their testimony indicates, the officers were endeavoring to learn defendant's true identity in order to provide him with assistance because he appeared to be intoxicated and was unsteady on his feet. The officers reasonably believed defendant might have some mental impairment. They reasonably decided not to let defendant leave in that condition. Because defendant appeared to have provided the police with false information, they reasonably chose to detain him while they continued their attempts to learn his true identity.

We recognize that, at some point in the encounter, the police believed that defendant may have provided them with false information and might be a person wanted in a criminal matter. Nevertheless, the record shows that the continued effort to identity defendant was not a pretext for a criminal investigation. As the Court explained in Bogan, performance of caretaking functions need not be completely divorced from the investigation of crime. Bogan, supra, 200 N.J. at 77.

Defendant argues, however, that N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16 shows that the police were not acting reasonably in their community caretaking function by taking him to the police station. The statute provides:

Any person who is intoxicated in a public place may be assisted to his residence or to an intoxication treatment center or other facility by a police officer or other authorized person.

Any person who is intoxicated in a public place and who a police officer has reason to believe is incapacitated shall be assisted by the police officer to an intoxication treatment center or other facility. [Ibid.]

Furthermore, the term "incapacitated" is defined in N.J.S.A. 26:2B-8 to mean a person who is:

a. as a result of the use of alcohol, unconscious or has his judgment so impaired that he is incapable of realizing and making a rational decision with respect to his need for treatment,

b. in need of substantial medical attention, or

c. likely to suffer substantial physical harm.

As N.J.S.A. 26:2B-16 indicates, a police officer has discretion when an intoxicated person is found in a public place. According to the statute, the officer "may" assist an "intoxicated" person "to his residence or to an intoxication treatment center or other facility." Ibid. The statute states, however, that the officer "shall" assist a person to "an intoxication treatment center or other facility" when he or she is intoxicated and believed to be incapacitated. Ibid. The statute provides the officer with "great latitude when determining how to handle a publicly intoxicated person." Morey v. Palmer, 232 N.J. Super. 144, 153 (App. Div. 1989).

Here, the officers thought that defendant was intoxicated and might have a mental impairment but there is no evidence indicating that he was "incapacitated" as that term is defined in N.J.S.A. 26:2B-8. Therefore, the officers were not under any statutory duty to remove defendant to an intoxication treatment center. The officers reasonably elected to bring defendant to the police station and detain him there while they endeavored to learn his true identity. They did so in furtherance of the caretaking function, not as a pretext for conducting a criminal investigation.



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