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State of New Jersey v. Cesar Albert Vargas

March 18, 2013

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
CESAR ALBERT VARGAS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, AND CARMELO MARTINEZ, DEFENDANT.



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 interest of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized.)

State v. Cesar Albert Vargas

(A-56-11); (069449)

Argued November 5, 2012

Decided March 18, 2013

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

In this appeal, the Court must decide whether, consistent with the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution, the community-caretaking doctrine authorizes the police to conduct a warrantless entry and search of a home to check on the welfare of a resident in the absence of the resident's consent or an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there is an emergency.

By March 2008, defendant Cesar Albert Vargas had resided for about a year in a second-floor apartment in Vineland. As of March 5, Vargas had not paid his rent, which was due on March 1. On March 5, Henry Olaya, the landlord, along with an appraiser, entered Vargas's apartment and did not find him there or anything amiss. Thereafter, Olaya received no response to knocks on Vargas's door or to voicemails left on Vargas's cell phone. Two tenants in the building told Olaya that they had not seen Vargas for either "several days" or "weeks." The tenants noticed that a bag of trash had been sitting on Vargas's front porch and for "several days" or perhaps a "week," Vargas's Jaguar convertible had not been moved. On March 17, Olaya observed Vargas's Jaguar parked beside the house, covered in pollen, its rear tires deflated. Vargas's mailbox was full. Olaya again knocked on Vargas's door and called his cell phone without response, but he did not try calling Vargas's emergency contact number or place of employment. Moreover, Olaya did not know the basic pattern of Vargas's "comings and goings," whether or for how long he vacationed, whether he took business trips, or whether he traveled out of town to meet with family.

Olaya called 9-1-1 and three Vineland police officers were dispatched to the address for a "welfare check." The officers observed that Vargas's mailbox was full, his Jaguar was covered in dust, and the car's tires were deflated. No one answered when the officers knocked on Vargas's door. The officers contacted dispatch and confirmed that no "calls for service" -- such as a call for an ambulance or the police -- had come from or been directed to Vargas's apartment. The officers ultimately entered Vargas's apartment because they said they "had reasons to fear for his safety." They found no one home and no signs of foul play. In the living room they saw a six-to-eight-inch jar containing what appeared to be marijuana. Olaya opened kitchen cabinets and drawers and found what "appeared to be two canning jars full of marijuana." A warrant was then secured to search the apartment.

Vargas was indicted for various crimes involving money laundering, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, unlawful possession of firearms, and other offenses. Vargas moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that the police entered and searched his apartment in violation of the warrant requirement. The trial court agreed and suppressed all evidence seized. The court specifically rejected the State's argument that the community-caretaking doctrine justified the warrantless search, finding that there was no objectively reasonable basis to believe that Vargas's life or well-being, or the community's safety was in jeopardy. The trial court determined that there were no "exigent circumstances" to justify the warrantless search of Vargas's home.

In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division reversed, holding that the warrantless search conformed to the community-caretaking doctrine, which it found had been extended to home searches, and that the search was based on "a legitimate concern for [Vargas's] welfare." The Supreme Court granted defendant's motion for leave to appeal. 209 N.J. 99 (2012).

HELD: The community-caretaking doctrine is not a justification for the warrantless entry and search of a home in the absence of some form of an objectively reasonable emergency.

1. "The right of the people to be secure in their . . . houses . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures" is an essential guarantee of both the Fourth Amendment and the State Constitution. The warrant requirement protects an individual in his home from official intrusion whether the purpose of the search is to further a criminal investigation or the government's enforcement of an administrative regulation. Because a warrantless search of a home is presumptively invalid, the State bears the burden of establishing that such a search falls within one of the few "'well-delineated exceptions' to the warrant requirement." State v. Frankel, 179 N.J. 586, 598 (1978). (pp. 9-15)

2. Courts consider Cady v. Dombrowski to be the origin of the community-caretaking doctrine as an exception to the warrant requirement. 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973). Although the Supreme Court in Cady recognized law enforcement's "community caretaking functions" in the context of an automobile search, it never suggested that community-caretaking responsibilities constituted a wholly new exception to the warrant requirement that would justify the warrantless search of a home. Indeed, the Cady Court distinguished between automobile and home searches. The United States Supreme Court has not referenced "community caretaking functions" as an exception to the warrant requirement outside of an automobile search. The United States Supreme Court has never spoken of a community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement that would allow the warrantless entry of a home absent some exigency. (pp. 15-20)

3. At first, the New Jersey Supreme Court narrowly construed Cady. In one case, the Court concluded that although the police were acting in a community-caretaking role in Cady, the validity of the warrantless search there was saved by exigent circumstances. In another, the Court specifically found that the community-caretaking doctrine could not be invoked to justify the warrantless entry into a private residence. Since then, the Court has applied the community-caretaking doctrine outside of the automobile-impoundment context. But when it has done so to justify a warrantless entry or search, the factual scenarios involved exigent circumstances -- circumstances requiring immediate police action. Without the presence of consent or some species of exigent circumstances, the community-caretaking doctrine is not a basis for the warrantless entry into and search of a home. (pp. 21-26)

4. The United States Courts of Appeals have split on whether the community-caretaking doctrine can justify a warrantless search of a home, but no circuit court suggests that the warrantless entry of a home is permissible in the absence of some form of exigency. The present case comes before the Supreme Court because New Jersey case law has blurred the distinction between the community-caretaking and emergency-aid doctrines. In performing community-caretaking tasks, police officers must comply with the dictates of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State Constitution. However, in carrying out their community-caretaking responsibilities, police officers may not have time to secure "a warrant when emergent circumstances arise and an immediate search is required to preserve life or property." State v. Edmonds, 211 N.J. 117, 141 (2012). In such circumstances, a warrant is not required to conduct a search. (p. 26-31)

5. Under this State's jurisprudence -- outside of the car-impoundment context -- warrantless searches justified in the name of the community-caretaking doctrine have involved some form of exigent or emergent circumstances. In this case, the trial court applied the correct legal standard and sufficient credible evidence in the record supports its decision. The police did not have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency threatening life or limb justified the warrantless entry into Vargas's apartment. The Appellate Division erred by concluding that the community-caretaking doctrine justified the warrantless search of Vargas's home, even in the absence of a "compelling need for immediate action." The seizure of evidence from Vargas's home violated the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State's Constitution and must be suppressed. (pp. 31-37)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

JUSTICE PATTERSON, dissenting, does not consider the constraints that the majority imposes upon law enforcement necessary to protect against unreasonable search and seizure as required by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER, JUSTICES LaVECCHIA and HOENS, and JUDGES RODRIGUEZ and CUFF (both temporarily assigned) join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. JUSTICE PATTERSON filed a separate, dissenting opinion.

Argued November 5, 2012

JUSTICE ALBIN delivered the opinion of the Court.

We must decide whether the community-caretaking doctrine authorizes the police to conduct a warrantless entry and search of a home to check on the welfare of a resident in the absence of the resident's consent or an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there is an emergency.

In this case, a landlord called the police because he had not seen or been able to contact a tenant for two weeks. During the two-week period, the tenant's garbage was not placed curbside, his mail accumulated, his car remained unmoved, and his monthly rent went unpaid. The landlord expressed concern for the tenant's well-being, and the police entered the home without a warrant and conducted a "welfare check." The tenant was not at home, but the search uncovered evidence that led to the tenant's indictment.

The trial court suppressed the evidence because the warrantless entry and search were not prompted by an objectively reasonable emergency. The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that the community-caretaking doctrine did not require an exigency to conduct a warrantless search; it only required that the police act reasonably.

We now hold that, based on the United States Supreme Court's and this Court's jurisprudence, the community-caretaking doctrine is not a justification for the warrantless entry and search of a home in the absence of some form of an objectively reasonable emergency. Because the warrantless entry and search in this case violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of our State Constitution, we reverse and reinstate the trial court's suppression order.

I.

A

state grand jury returned an indictment charging defendant Cesar Albert Vargas with various second-, third-, and fourth-degree crimes involving money laundering, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, unlawful possession of firearms, unlawful weapons devices, and receiving stolen property.*fn1 The charges arose from the discovery of contraband during a search of Vargas's apartment. Vargas moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that the police entered and searched his apartment in violation of the warrant requirement.

At a suppression hearing before the Honorable Benjamin C. Telsey, J.S.C., the State called four witnesses to testify. The essential facts are largely undisputed.

A.

By March 2008, defendant Cesar Albert Vargas had resided for about a year in a second-floor apartment at 1035 East Park Avenue in Vineland. Henry Olaya, the landlord of the four-unit building, testified that Vargas was a "good tenant" -- he kept his place clean and "paid his rent on time."

On March 2, Olaya placed a letter in Vargas's mailbox informing him that in three days he and an appraiser would enter his apartment. On March 5, Olaya and the appraiser entered Vargas's apartment; Vargas was not at home. Olaya observed nothing amiss inside the residence.

Under the terms of Vargas's lease, rent was due by March 1, and any payment received after the fifth day of the month was deemed late. With the rent unpaid as of March 5, Olaya made several attempts to contact Vargas. However, Olaya received no response to knocks on Vargas's door or to voicemails left on Vargas's cell phone. Two tenants in the building told Olaya that they had not seen Vargas for either "several days" or "weeks." The tenants noticed that a bag of trash had been sitting on Vargas's front porch, and, for "several days" or perhaps a "week," Vargas's Jaguar convertible had not been moved.

On March 17, Olaya intended to do spring cleaning at the building. There, he observed Vargas's Jaguar parked beside the house, covered in pollen, its rear tires deflated. Moreover, Vargas's mailbox was full, and Olaya's March 2 letter had not been removed. Olaya knocked on Vargas's door and called his cell phone without any response. Olaya's concern about the unpaid rent now ripened into concern about his tenant's welfare. Olaya decided against entering Vargas's apartment despite the terms of the rental agreement, which provided that the "OWNER may enter . . . the premises at any time in case of emergency or suspected abandonment."

Instead, after conferring with the co-owner of the building, Olaya dialed 9-1-1 to alert the police. Before doing so, however, Olaya did not try calling Vargas's emergency contact number or place of employment.*fn2 Significantly, Olaya did not know details about Vargas's personal life or employment. He did not know the basic pattern of Vargas's "comings and goings," whether or for how long he vacationed, whether he took business trips, or whether he traveled out of town to meet with family.

In all, three Vineland police officers were dispatched to 1035 East Park Avenue for a "welfare check." When Sergeant Louis Carini and Patrolman John Calio arrived, Olaya told them that he had been unable to contact Vargas for approximately two weeks. Olaya also explained that tenants had not seen Vargas in that time and that Vargas was behind on his rent and utility bills. The officers observed for themselves that Vargas's mailbox was full, his Jaguar was covered in dust, and the car's tires deflated.

No one answered when the officers knocked on Vargas's door. The officers then peered through a window but saw no one in the apartment. They contacted dispatch and confirmed that no "calls for service" -- such as a call for an ambulance or the police -- had come from or been directed to Vargas's apartment. The officers did not ask the dispatcher to check whether Vargas had been arrested or hospitalized because such an approach was not consistent with protocol. Olaya -- according to Officer Calio -- - did not tell them that he had Vargas's contact information.*fn3

The officers ultimately entered Vargas's apartment because they "had reasons to fear for his safety." Olaya unlocked the apartment door, and the officers began to search the premises for Vargas. The officers checked all the rooms of the apartment, as well as the closets, and found no one home and no signs of foul play. In the living room they saw a six- to eight-inch jar containing vegetation that appeared to be marijuana. Olaya, who had entered the apartment with the officers, opened kitchen cabinet drawers. Inside one drawer "appeared to be two canning jars full of marijuana." An officer standing nearby observed the drawer's contents, and the police then directed everyone to leave the apartment.

The police later secured a warrant to search the apartment.*fn4

B.

The trial court concluded that the police violated the Constitution's warrant requirement and suppressed all evidence seized as a result of the unlawful search of Vargas's home. The court specifically rejected the State's argument that the community-caretaking doctrine justified the warrantless search. According to the court, under the community-caretaking doctrine, the police had to meet a two-prong test before a warrantless search of a residence could be undertaken. The police satisfied prong one because the purpose of the entry into Vargas's home was not to uncover evidence of a crime. The police, however, did not satisfy prong two because there was no objectively reasonable basis to believe that Vargas's life or well-being, or the community's safety was in jeopardy. For that reason, the search of Vargas's home did not fall within an exception to the warrant requirement.

The court distinguished the present case from other community-caretaking doctrine cases: State v. Bogan, 200 N.J. 61 (2009); State v. Diloreto, 180 N.J. 264 (2004); State v. Garbin, 325 N.J. Super. 521 (App. Div. 1999), certif. denied, 164 N.J. 560 (2000); and State v. Navarro, 310 N.J. Super. 104 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 156 N.J. 382 (1998). In each of those cases, the court noted, there was "an immediate risk to not only a present individual but an immediate risk to the community at large." Here, the court did not see "a single indicia of evidence" that either Vargas's or the community's safety was at risk. Rather, the evidence was consistent with someone vacationing, traveling on business, or tending to a sick family member. In other words, "[h]e just wasn't there for a couple of weeks and that's it."*fn5

C.

The court denied the State's motion for ...


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