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State of New Jersey v. Shareef Edmonds

July 26, 2012

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
SHAREEF EDMONDS, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

SYLLABUS

(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.)

State of New Jersey v. Shareef Edmonds

(A-106-10); (067889)

Argued January 18, 2012

Decided July 26, 2012

ALBIN, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

The Court considers whether a warrantless search of a residence was permissible under the emergency-aid or community-caretaking exceptions to the constitutional warrant requirement.

On January 16, 2008, the Roselle Park Police Department received a 9-1-1 call from a person who identified himself as "John Smith" and stated that his sister was being beaten up by her boyfriend and that he had a gun. The man gave his sister's name, Kamilah Richardson, and her address. The man did not provide his contact information or reveal the source of his knowledge about the alleged events, and the operator did not attempt to verify the call. Four officers were dispatched to the residence. They were met at the downstairs door by Richardson, who told the officers that there was no problem at the residence and that only her eleven-year-old son was in the apartment. She appeared agitated and refused to consent to the officers' entering the apartment. When the officers' advised that they were going to search the residence for other occupants, Richardson insisted that she wanted to talk with her son before the police entered. Richardson was informed that the officers must enter first. Finding the door locked, the officers directed the boy to unlock it. On entering the home, they found the boy standing in the living room and defendant Shareef Edmonds in an adjoining room watching television. Edmonds was removed from the room and patted down for weapons, but none were found. Officers then searched the immediate area where Edmonds earlier had been watching television and found a loaded .38 caliber revolver under a pillow. When Edmonds admitted that the gun was his, the officers arrested him for unlawful possession of a weapon. While the officers were still at the apartment, Richardson stated that she had been having trouble with her ex-boyfriend, G.S., and that Edmonds had not engaged in any act of domestic violence.

Edmonds was charged with second-degree unlawful possession of a .38 caliber handgun, and second-degree possession of the same handgun by a person previously convicted of a crime. He moved to suppress the gun, claiming that it was seized during an unconstitutional search. The trial court determined that the officers had a duty to go to the residence in response to the 9-1-1 call, they were not required to accept Richardson's representation that there was no problem at the residence, and they acted responsibly by entering the apartment to ensure the boy's safety. However, the judge found that after the frisk of Edmonds failed to uncover a weapon, the warrantless search exceeded the permissible scope of the emergency-aid doctrine because there was no evidence of domestic violence in the apartment. The judge explained that if the officers still had concerns, they could have taken Richardson and her son to another location for their protection and secured a warrant. The judge ordered the gun suppressed.

In an unpublished decision, the Appellate Division agreed that the search was not justified under the emergency-aid doctrine. However, the panel remanded for consideration of whether the search was permissible under the community-caretaking doctrine outlined in State v. Bogan, 200 N.J. 61 (2009). On remand, the trial court concluded that the officers fulfilled their community-caretaking function once they were assured by Richardson that there was no domestic violence, after they observed that she and her son were not injured and he was not in distress, and after seeing that Edmonds did not appear to be engaged in unlawful activity; therefore, the warrantless search exceeded the scope of the officers' community-caretaking duties. The Appellate Division affirmed in an unpublished opinion. The Supreme Court granted the State's motion for leave to appeal. 206 N.J. 70 (2011).

HELD: In responding to a 9-1-1 report of possible domestic violence, once the police officers found that there was inadequate evidence to corroborate the 9-1-1 report and determined that the parties' safety was not an issue, there was no objectively reasonable basis to search the residence under either the community-caretaking or emergency-aid exceptions to the warrant requirement and the evidence obtained though the warrantless search must be suppressed.

1. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution guarantee the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, and state that no warrants shall issue except upon probable cause. Under New Jersey case law, warrantless searches, particularly of a home, are presumptively invalid and the State must establish that such a search was justified by an exception to the warrant requirement, such as the emergency-aid doctrine or the community-caretaking doctrine. (pp. 13-14)

2. The emergency-aid doctrine permits officials to enter a dwelling without a warrant to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury. The three-part test for determining whether a warrantless search is justified by the emergency-aid doctrine was set forth in State v. Frankel. The test inquired whether 1) the official had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency required him to provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life or prevent serious injury; 2) the official's primary motivation for entry into the home was to render assistance, not to find and seize evidence; and 3) there was a reasonable nexus between the emergency and the area to be searched. Because the United States Supreme Court has held that the subjective motivation of a police officer is irrelevant and the appropriate question is whether, viewing the circumstances objectively, the actions of the officer were justified, the Court aligns New Jersey's jurisprudence with federal law and eliminates the second part of the test, leaving only the two objective inquiries. The Court cautions that the emergency-aid doctrine, particularly when applied to the entry of a home, must be limited to the reasons and objectives that prompted the need for immediate action. (pp. 14-21)

3. Here, officers responded to a 9-1-1 report of possible domestic violence involving a gun at Richardson's home. Neither the 9-1-1 caller's identity nor the information he provided were corroborated, and the United States Supreme Court has cautioned that there is no automatic firearm exception to the established reliability analysis of an anonymous tip. Reviewing the facts of the case, the Court finds that police had a duty to look behind the denials by Richardson while her son remained potentially in jeopardy in the apartment, and it does not question the officers' decision to enter the home to assure the boy's safety. The Court assumes that the detention and frisk of Edmonds also were proper. However, the Court finds that once there was no longer an objective basis to believe that an emergency was at hand, the privacy interests of the home were entitled to the highest degree of respect. At that point, the police needed to obtain a search warrant to proceed any further. The State did not overcome the presumption that the warrantless search of the residence was unreasonable. (pp. 21-31)

4. In determining whether the community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement justified the search of Richardson's home, the Court acknowledges that police officers provide a wide range of social services outside of their traditional law enforcement and criminal investigatory roles, including protecting the vulnerable from harm and preserving property. In performing these tasks, there is not time to acquire a warrant when emergent circumstances arise and an immediate search is required to preserve life or property. In Bogan, the Court found justified by the community-caretaking exception an officer's decision to enter an apartment in which an alleged sexual assault of a minor had occurred for the purpose of speaking on the telephone with the parent of a child who answered the door. However, Bogan did not involve a search for evidence or a weapon in a home. Here, the officers investigated and failed to corroborate the domestic violence report, thereby fulfilling their community-caretaking function. If the officers wished to search the apartment for a gun, they had to apply for a warrant supported by probable cause. The findings of the trial court that the police conducted a home search that exceeded the permissible boundaries of the community-caretaking doctrine are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. (pp. 31-36).

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.

JUSTICE PATTERSON, DISSENTING,is of the opinion that the officers' actions were objectively reasonable. Based on the dangers that domestic violence incidents present and the fact that officers need to make instantaneous decisions about whether to enter and search the home of a victim, and noting that Richardson attempted to hinder the officers' entry into the residence and falsely told them that the only occupant was her son, Justice Patterson maintains that the officers' limited search of the immediate area where Edmonds had been sitting was permissible under both the community caretaking doctrine and the majority's two-part test for the emergency aid doctrine.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER; JUSTICES LaVECCHIA and HOENS; and JUDGE WEFING (temporarily assigned) join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. JUSTICE PATTERSON filed a separate, dissenting opinion.

Argued January 18, 2012

JUSTICE ALBIN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The police responded to an unverified 9-1-1 call reporting "a domestic dispute possibly involving a handgun" at a Carteret residence. Outside her apartment, Kamilah Richardson told the police that there was no problem in her home and that her eleven-year-old son was inside alone. Against her will, the police entered the apartment to assure the safety of the young boy. The police found him unharmed, without any visible injuries or signs of distress and no indication of a domestic disturbance inside the apartment. The police removed defendant Shareef Edmonds from an adjoining room, where he was watching television, and frisked him. Without evidence to corroborate the earlier domestic-violence report and without first securing a warrant, the police searched the area where defendant had been seated. A handgun was found under a pillow. Defendant, who was charged with the unlawful possession of the gun, claimed that the warrantless search yielding the weapon was unconstitutional.

The trial court agreed, determining that the search of the home without a warrant was objectively unreasonable and could not be justified by either the emergency-aid or community-caretaking exception to the constitutional warrant requirement. The court suppressed the gun, and the Appellate Division affirmed.

We now hold that sufficient credible evidence in the record supports the trial court's ruling. The search of a home without a warrant is presumptively unreasonable. Once the police determined that there was inadequate evidence to corroborate the report of domestic violence, and the parties' safety was not an issue, there was no objectively reasonable basis to conduct a search under either the community-caretaking or emergency-aid doctrine. At that point, to conduct a search of Ms. Richardson's home, the police had to apply for a warrant based on probable cause.

I. A.

Defendant Shareef Edmonds was charged in separate indictments with second-degree unlawful possession of a .38 caliber handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b), and second-degree possession of the same handgun by a person previously convicted of a crime, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7(b). Defendant moved to suppress the gun, claiming that it was seized during an unconstitutional search of the apartment where he had been visiting.

The Honorable Frederick P. De Vesa, P.J.Cr., conducted a suppression hearing. The State and defendant agreed that the facts were not in dispute and stipulated to the factual recitation in the report of Carteret Police Officer Marcus Rosario. No witnesses were called at the hearing. The evidence of record reveals the following.

Shortly before 1:00 a.m. on January 16, 2008, the Roselle Park Police Department received a 9-1-1 call from a person who identified himself as "John Smith."*fn1 He stated, "I'm calling for my sister. I believe that her boyfriend is beating her up and he got a gun." "Smith" gave his sister's name as Kamilah Richardson and her address as 22 Mary Street in Carteret. He claimed to have no telephone number where he could be contacted, and ended the conversation saying, "My brother-in-law is picking me up. I'm on my way out there now."*fn2 The record does not indicate that "Smith" ever arrived at the scene.

At 12:54 a.m., Carteret Police Officer Marcus Rosario and three other officers were dispatched "to 22 Mary Street 2nd floor to investigate a domestic dispute possibly involving a handgun." Officer Rosario's report notes that the "third party caller" made a report to the Roselle Park Police Department and claimed to be "John Smith[,] the victim's brother."

On their arrival, the officers were met by Ms. Richardson at the downstairs door. She told the officers "that there was no problem at the residence" and refused to give consent to their entering her apartment. The officers were apparently insistent on entering her home, and she became "noticeably agitated," repeatedly stating that she did not want the police in her apartment and "that there was no problem." In response to a question from Officer Rosario, Ms. Richardson claimed that only her eleven-year-old son, Elijah, was in the apartment. The officers advised Ms. Richardson that they "were going to check her residence for any other possible occupants," even though she was blocking their way. Ms. Richardson started walking upstairs, saying that she wanted to talk to her son before the police entered. She was advised that "due to the nature of the call" the police would have to enter the apartment first. Officer Rosario, who proceeded up the stairs with two other officers, discovered that the door was locked. Again, Ms. Richardson denied that anyone other than her son was in the apartment. Elijah was told to unlock the door, and he did so.

When Officer Rosario stepped into the residence, Elijah was standing in the living room. At that time, Officer Rosario observed a television playing in a room to his left. With his gun drawn, he entered that room and observed a person known to him as Shareef Edmonds. Defendant "was sitting in a chair in front of the television," and to his left a mattress was on the floor. Officer Rosario ordered defendant "to stand up, put his hands up, and exit the room." Defendant was patted down for weapons, but none were found. Two officers then stood by defendant as Officer Rosario returned to the adjacent room and searched the "immediate area" where defendant had been watching television. Under a pillow lying on the mattress, Officer Rosario discovered a loaded .38 caliber revolver. Officer Rosario secured the weapon, stepped back into the living room, and asked who owned the gun. Defendant immediately replied, "[I]t's mine." Defendant then was arrested for unlawful possession of the weapon.

While still at the apartment, Ms. Richardson explained that she had been having ongoing problems with her ex-boyfriend, G.S. According to Ms. Richardson, just a day earlier, G.S. had left a telephone message threatening to kill both her and her son. She insisted that defendant had not engaged in any act of domestic violence. Ms. Richardson was arrested for obstruction of justice.*fn3

B.

Based on the record, Judge De Vesa determined that: the officers had a duty to go to the Richardson residence in response to the 9-1-1 call reporting possible domestic violence; the officers were not required to accept Ms. Richardson's representation that there was "no problem" at the residence; and the officers acted reasonably by further investigating and entering the apartment to ensure the safety of eleven-year-old Elijah. However, viewing the "totality of the circumstances," Judge De Vesa determined that the warrantless search of the room where Officer Rosario found the gun exceeded the permissible scope of the emergency-aid doctrine as discussed in State v. Frankel, 179 N.J. 586, 598, cert. denied, 543 U.S. 876, 125 S. Ct. 108, 160 L. Ed. 2d 128 (2004). He came to that conclusion for a number of reasons.

After Elijah opened the apartment door, the officers did not report that the boy appeared injured or in distress in any way. Nothing in the police report suggests that the officers questioned Elijah before defendant was secured, led from the other room, and patted down. The frisk of defendant yielded no weapons. Additionally, "there was no demonstrable evidence of . . . domestic violence" inside the apartment. Thus, the objective evidence "began to dispel the existence of an emergency."

Judge De Vesa observed that before conducting a search of the apartment, if the officers had "further concerns they could [have] simply escorted Mrs. Richardson or the boy[] outside from the home and questioned them." Judge De Vesa also considered it significant that the 9-1-1 operator "made no attempt to . . . corroborate the nature of call" that led to the dispatch of the officers to the Richardson residence and that the officers never asked Ms. Richardson if she had a brother named "John Smith." To Judge De Vesa's mind, "a certain level of diligence" is required before searching a home without a warrant.

Judge De Vesa acknowledged that the officers had acted "reasonably up to a point." However, after the frisk of defendant failed to uncover a weapon, and without corroborative evidence of domestic violence, Judge De Vesa ruled that the officers could not "reasonably conclude that there was an emergency that required them to search the home" without a warrant. That was so because Ms. Richardson and her son could have been moved to another location for their protection while the police attempted to secure a warrant. Viewing the totality of the circumstances, Judge De Vesa concluded that the police were "looking for evidence" of a crime after defendant was frisked and secured. Because the police were acting outside of the scope of the emergency-aid doctrine, Judge De Vesa ordered the suppression of the gun.

C.

The Appellate Division granted leave to appeal and, in an unpublished opinion, concurred with Judge De Vesa's "conclusion that the search was not justified under the emergency aid doctrine." The panel, however, remanded to the trial court to consider whether the warrantless search was permissible under the community-caretaking doctrine outlined in State v. Bogan, 200 N.J. 61 (2009), which was decided after the court rendered its decision. The panel noted that "[o]n remand, the trial court, in its discretion, may reopen the record for testimony."

D.

On remand, the State did not seek to expand the record by offering testimony. Judge De Vesa therefore decided the legal issue based on the stipulated record. He concluded that the police officers -- responding to an unverified telephone call --fulfilled their community-caretaking function after they were assured by Ms. Richardson that there was no domestic-violence problem, after they observed that she and her son had no discernible injuries and that her son was not in distress, and after seeing for themselves that defendant did not "appear to be engaged in any unlawful activity." According to Judge De Vesa, the officers "exceeded the scope of their community caretaking duties" when they conducted a warrantless search designed "to uncover evidence of criminality" rather than "to promote the safety of [Ms. Richardson] or her son." He did not find the present facts comparable to Bogan, in which a limited entry into a residence to ensure the safety of a young child was justified under the community-caretaking doctrine. Thus, the gun remained suppressed.

E.

The Appellate Division, after granting leave to appeal, affirmed again in an unpublished opinion. The panel agreed that Bogan was not on point. It found that "Judge De Vesa's factual findings were based on the evidence presented to him and inferences reasonably drawn from that evidence." It concluded that "[i]f the police believed that they had probable cause to search the apartment, they had the option of applying for a search warrant, either in person or by telephone."

We granted the State's motion for leave to appeal. State v. Edmonds, 206 N.J. 70 (2011). We also granted the motions of the Attorney General and the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey (ACDL) to participate as amici curiae.

II.

The State argues that both the emergency-aid and the community-caretaking doctrines broadly empower the police to enter a dwelling without a warrant: "The emergency aid doctrine permits police officers to enter a residence after receiving a 9-1-1 call" and "[t]he community caretaking doctrine authorizes police officers to enter a residence unbidden to perform a 'clear community caretak[ing] responsibility . . . .'" (Quoting Bogan, supra, 200 N.J. at 77). According to the State, three primary factors gave the police authority "to conduct a reasonable but limited in scope search for a gun" while in the apartment: the 9-1-1 call reporting domestic violence; Ms. Richardson's effort to block the officers from entering her residence; and her untruthful statement that only her son was there. The State insists that "there was no evidence to support the trial court's finding that [Officer] Rosario was in an evidence-gathering mode." Thus, "exigent circumstances still required the police to perform their caretaker role to protect [Ms. Richardson], Elijah and themselves from firearms." Amicus Attorney General similarly argues that the limited search of the apartment for weapons was reasonable and therefore calls for the reversal of the Appellate Division decision.

In response, defendant basically restates the reasons given by the trial court for rejecting the emergency-aid and community-caretaking doctrines as justifications for the warrantless search of the apartment. Defendant emphasizes several facts to refute the suggestion that there was an ongoing emergency and to reinforce the court's conclusion that the search of the apartment had turned into a criminal investigation: Ms. Richardson's denial that there was a domestic-violence problem; no objective signs of a disturbance inside the residence; and no discernable injuries to anyone. Amicus ACDL similarly maintains that the search was not justified. The ACDL submits that when the police searched the room, there was no longer an emergency-aid purpose as Ms. Richardson, the boy, and defendant were all separated and secured. The ACDL likewise maintains that a warrantless search of a home is not justified under the guise of the emergency-aid and community-caretaking doctrines absent some form of real and imminent ...


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