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State of New Jersey v. John J. Rockford

April 23, 2013

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
JOHN J. ROCKFORD, III, A/K/A JOHN ROCKFORD, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Patterson

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. John J. Rockford, III

(A-54-11) (069106)

Argued October 23, 2012

Decided April 23, 2013

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

In this appeal, the Court considers the constitutionality of the execution of a knock-and-announce search warrant that included the use of a flash-bang device.

The Manalapan Police Department investigated defendant after an anonymous informant reported that he was selling illegal drugs out of his garage. Officers determined that although defendant had been denied a handgun permit because of a previous arrest, defendant's father, with whom he lived, legally owned four firearms. Police conducted surveillance of defendant's residence for six days in August 2007. Officers observed defendant briefly admit individuals into the garage after opening the overhead garage door and visitors leave holding objects that had not been with them when they arrived. Officers also observed groups of people smoking what the officers believed to be marijuana in the garage. The officers applied for a "no-knock" warrant to search defendant's residence and began planning their operation pursuant to a no-knock and a "knock-and-announce" search warrant. A knock-and-announce warrant was issued on August 23, 2007, after which the officers finalized their written plan for the warrant's execution. The plan called for a dozen officers, divided into three teams. The first team would deploy a "flash-bang" diversionary device, designed to generate an intense flash of light and loud noise, in defendant's driveway and then to proceed into the garage. The second team would proceed to the front door, knock and announce their presence, and enter the home. The third team would remain outdoors.

The officers approached defendant's home late in the afternoon of August 24, 2007. After defendant opened the garage door and was standing with another man on the driveway near the open door, the first team deployed a flash-bang device on the driveway and repeatedly announced, "Police, we have a search warrant" for approximately fifteen seconds. Defendant and the other man retreated into the garage. The officers pursued the men through the open garage door while continuing to announce the warrant. The men were apprehended and handcuffed. The officers then knocked and announced their presence at the door that connected the garage to the inside of the home for three or four seconds before entering. Meanwhile, the second team knocked and announced their presence at the front door for twenty-five to thirty seconds, attempted to breach the door, and ultimately entered through the garage. The search yielded a substantial volume of controlled dangerous substances (CDS) and other evidence. Defendant was charged with numerous crimes.

Defendant moved to suppress the evidence. After a hearing, the trial court denied the motion to suppress, holding that the flash-bang device was lawfully used in the execution of the knock-and-announce warrant. Defendant appealed. In a divided decision, the Appellate Division reversed and invoked the exclusionary rule to bar the evidence. The majority held that the police's preplanned deployment of the flash-bang device violated the knock-and-announce provision of the search warrant and attempted to circumvent the warrant's terms. One panel member dissented. The State appealed as of right. R. 2:2-1(a)(2).

HELD: The Court declines to adopt a bright-line rule that would preclude the use of a flash-bang device in the execution of a knock-and-announce search warrant. The objective reasonableness of law enforcement's execution of a warrant should be determined on a case-by-case basis, considering the totality of the circumstances. Here, the officers' execution of the warrant was objectively reasonable and, thus, constitutional.

1. The test for evaluating the constitutionality of police conduct in executing a warrant under both the United States and New Jersey Constitutions is the same: was the conduct objectively reasonable in light of the facts known to the law enforcement officer at the time of the search. If police actions in executing a warrant are objectively reasonable, there is no constitutional violation. The terms of the warrant must be strictly respected. A knock-and-announce warrant requires officers to knock on the door and announce their authority and purpose before entering the premises. The knock-and-announce rule is premised upon the principle that even a short delay between the announced arrival of police and entry into a home safeguards privacy and security and guards against unreasonable intrusion. (pp. 16-21)

2. The United States Supreme Court has not considered the constitutionality of the use of a flash-bang device in the execution of a search warrant. Federal appellate courts, analyzing the execution of warrants on a case-by-case basis, have found that careful police planning prior to executing a warrant and the presence of weapons in a residence weigh in favor of a finding that the use of a flash-bang device is objectively reasonable. In every case in which federal appellate courts have found the use of a flash-bang to be unreasonable, the device had been deployed in an indoor setting in which it posed a risk to occupants and property. In New Jersey, two Appellate Division panels have considered the use of a flash-bang device in the execution of a search warrant. In State v. Fanelle, 385 N.J. Super. 518 (App. Div. 2006), in which police officers used a flash-bang device indoors during the execution of a no-knock warrant, the panel rejected a bright-line rule that would require prior judicial approval before a flash-bang device could be used. In State v. Robinson, 399 N.J. Super. 400 (App. Div. 2008), rev'd on other grounds, 200 N.J. 1 (2009), the panel adopted a bright-line rule that, absent exigent circumstances, a flash-bang device could not be used to execute a knock-and-announce search warrant. This Court reversed the panel's judgment on procedural grounds and did not expressly review the bright-line rule. (pp. 21-26)

3. The Court declines to adopt a bright-line rule against the use of a flash-bang device to execute a knock-and-announce search warrant. The objective reasonableness of law enforcement's execution of a warrant that includes the use of a flash-bang device should be determined on a case-by-case basis, considering the totality of the circumstances. Courts should weigh such factors as the scope of any threat of violence presented by the occupant, the physical features of the residence, the presence of others on the premises, the potential loss of evidence if the device is not used, and the risk of personal injury and property damage that the deployment would pose. In this case, the execution of the warrant was objectively reasonable, and the use of the flash-bang device did not render it otherwise. The officers methodically planned the execution of the warrant before it was obtained and planned for both a no-knock and a knock-and-announce warrant. The officers suspected defendant of conducting a substantial CDS operation from his home and knew that he had access to several firearms. The officers also were aware that individuals associated with CDS sales could be present when the search warrant was executed. Moreover, the officers neither contemplated nor executed an indoor deployment of the flash-bang device, posing no risk of personal injury or property damage. The officers acted prudently to protect their own safety, refrained from endangering the occupants during the execution of the search warrant, preserved the disputed evidence, and arrested defendant without incident. (pp. 26-30)

4. A reasonable time must elapse between the officers' announcement of their presence pursuant to a knock-and-announce warrant and the officers' forced entry. What constitutes a "reasonable time" is necessarily vague and contingent upon the circumstances of the specific case. In Robinson, this Court held that a delay of twenty to thirty seconds between officers' knock and announcement and their forced entry was reasonable as they executed a search warrant for narcotics given the potential for the destruction of evidence while entry was delayed. The Court cited such factors as the suspect's violent criminal history; an informant's tip that weapons will be present; the risks to officers' lives and safety; the size or layout of defendant's property; whether persons other than defendant reside there; whether others involved in the crime are expected to be present; and the time of day. Here, well over twenty seconds elapsed between the officers' initial announcement of their presence and purpose and their entry into the interior of the residence. During that interval, both teams clearly and repeatedly announced that they were police officers executing a search warrant. In the setting of this case, given defendant's suspected access to weapons, the presence of a second individual and the officers' careful analysis of the risks, the officers' conduct was objectively reasonable and did not violate defendant's right against unreasonable search and seizure. (pp. 30-34)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and defendant's conviction is REINSTATED.

JUSTICE LaVECCHIA, dissenting, expresses the view that the evidence seized in the search should be suppressed because unreasonable means were used to execute the search warrant.

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

Argued October 23, 2012

JUSTICE PATTERSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

On August 24, 2007, officers from the Manalapan Police Department executed a search warrant at the home that defendant John J. Rockford, III shared with his parents. Based upon an investigation that included surveillance, officers suspected defendant of conducting a drug distribution operation in his residence, and concluded that defendant had access to weapons located in the home. The search warrant executed by the Manalapan police officers was a "knock-and-announce" warrant, which, with narrow exceptions, requires officers to knock on the door and announce their authority and purpose before entering the premises. In their execution of the warrant, the officers followed a written plan that included the use of a "flash-bang" diversionary device, designed to generate an intense flash of light and loud noise to briefly distract a suspect. They deployed the flash-bang device outdoors, on defendant's driveway, immediately before entering the open garage, knocking on the doors of the residence and entering the home itself. The officers' search yielded a substantial volume of controlled dangerous substances (CDS), CDS paraphernalia, and weapons.

Defendant moved to suppress the evidence recovered by the police from the search. He challenged the officers' use of the flash-bang device prior to knocking and announcing their presence, and their conduct as they entered the garage and the interior of the home, on the ground that the officers violated the "knock-and-announce" provision of the warrant. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, and defendant pled guilty to two drug offenses.

Defendant appealed. A divided Appellate Division panel reversed the trial court's decision denying the motion to suppress. The panel's majority held that the preplanned use of a flash-bang device is inherently inconsistent with a knock-and- announce search warrant, and that the officers' search violated the terms of the warrant, thus requiring the exclusion of the evidence discovered during the search. A member of the panel dissented, finding the officers' execution of the search warrant objectively reasonable, and concluding that their preplanned deployment of the flash-bang device was proper under the circumstances of this case. By virtue of the dissent in the Appellate Division, the State appealed as of right.

We reverse the Appellate Division panel's determination. We conclude that the execution of the warrant did not violate defendant's right against unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution or Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. We further conclude that the officers' execution of the search warrant was objectively reasonable, given the setting in which they proceeded -- a home containing multiple firearms that was suspected of serving as the hub of a significant drug distribution operation. We decline to adopt a bright-line rule that would preclude the use of a flash-bang device in the execution of a knock-and-announce warrant absent unanticipated exigent circumstances. Under the totality of the circumstances, we find the officers' conduct in executing the search warrant to be objectively reasonable and, thus consistent with constitutional standards.

I.

An anonymous informant's tip triggered the Manalapan Police Department's investigation of defendant. The informant reported that a man named Rockford in his late twenties or early thirties was selling marijuana and prescription drugs by briefly admitting CDS buyers into his garage attached to his residence located near police headquarters. Officers were familiar with defendant because of prior investigations involving the sale of CDS. They determined that although defendant had been denied a handgun permit because of a previous arrest, defendant's seventy-seven-year-old father legally owned four firearms. The officers learned that the father had sought two additional permits, and that defendant frequently accompanied his father when he inquired about the applications' statuses. Thus, from the inception of the investigation, officers were concerned that defendant had ready access to firearms in the home that he shared with his parents.

Police conducted surveillance of defendant's residence for six days in August 2007. Officers observed defendant briefly admit individuals into the garage after opening the overhead garage door. Visitors left holding objects that had not been with them when they arrived. During the surveillance, officers observed groups of people smoking what the officers believed to be marijuana in the garage.

Led by Detective Michael Ratta, the officers applied for a search warrant for defendant's residence, a shed on the property, and vehicles registered to defendant and his father. Detective Ratta's affidavit, submitted in support of the warrant application, set forth the results of the officers' investigation, including details on the surveillance of the home. The officers requested that the warrant permit them to search for CDS, CDS paraphernalia, evidence of CDS manufacturing, records of proceeds from CDS sales, computer files and firearms. They requested that the court issue a "no-knock" warrant permitting police officers to enter defendant's residence without announcing their presence or purpose.

With the application for the warrant submitted to the court, the officers planned their operation. Lieutenant Michael Fountain, leader of the Manalapan Police Department's Emergency Response Team (ERT), led the planning. Lieutenant Fountain was certified as an instructor in the use of the flash-bang device, which the Department had yet to deploy in any police operation. On August 22, 2007, officers met to discuss the execution of both a "no-knock" and a "knock-and-announce" warrant.

On August 23, 2007, a Superior Court judge issued the warrant but directed that it be a knock-and-announce warrant, rather than the requested no-knock warrant. The officers then completed a "risk assessment matrix" to determine the operation's threat to police safety. Given defendant's suspected involvement in CDS and defendant's potential access to firearms, the ERT was charged with leading the execution of the warrant. The Manalapan Police Department did not seek an emergent appeal of the trial court's denial of the "no-knock" provision that it had sought.

With the search warrant in hand, the officers finalized their plan for the warrant's execution. The plan called for a dozen officers, divided into three teams, to approach defendant's home from different vantage points. Team One, consisting of five officers and headed by Lieutenant Fountain, would deploy the flash-bang device outdoors. The plan called for Lieutenant Fountain to toss the device from a vehicle parked in the neighbor's driveway to defendant's driveway, and then to proceed into the garage, detaining anyone in the garage and securing the first floor. The four officers comprising Team Two would proceed to the front door of the residence, knock and announce their presence and purpose, and enter the home. Team Three would remain outdoors behind the residence and apprehend anyone attempting to flee.

The officers approached defendant's home late in the afternoon of August 24, 2007. They waited until the overhead garage door was open, and saw two men standing on the driveway near the open door. They recognized one of the men as defendant, based upon descriptions of him as a very tall individual weighing over 300 pounds. Team One mistakenly parked its vehicle in defendant's driveway rather than the neighbor's driveway. Nonetheless, Lieutenant Fountain tossed the flash-bang device from the police vehicle onto defendant's driveway, between thirty and thirty-five feet from the garage, where it emitted a bright flash and a loud sound. Defendant and the other individual retreated into the garage, pursued through the open door by the officers, who shouted, "[p]olice, search warrant. Police, we have a search warrant." Lieutenant Fountain pointed his service weapon at the two men and directed them to put their hands in the air, and officers handcuffed them.

Lieutenant Fountain then proceeded to the door that connected the garage to the inside of the home, knocked on the door and announced, for "[m]aybe three or four seconds," the presence of police with a search warrant. They then entered the interior of the residence through the door that connected the garage to the home. Meanwhile, as found by the trial court, Team Two knocked on the front door of the house for twenty-five to thirty seconds before attempting to breach the door. As Lieutenant Fountain proceeded through the garage door, he heard officers from Team Two banging on the front door with a battering ram. One of them announced, "[p]olice, stay away from the door, get away from the door." Lieutenant Fountain instructed Team Two to stop attempting to breach the door and to enter the house through the garage. The officers complied. Lieutenant Fountain heard a woman screaming on the second floor. He and another officer encountered an older woman, later identified as defendant's seventy-two-year-old mother, who was characterized by the second officer as "in a state of disbelief." Defendant's father then returned home to find police officers searching the house.

The Manalapan officers' search of defendant's home and property yielded considerable evidence. They found three handguns, a rifle with ammunition, a banana clip ammunition magazine, five pounds of marijuana, more than 7000 prescription drug pills in sample packages or bottles labeled for six individuals, blank prescription forms, seventy-six Fentanyl patches and pops, 340 milligrams of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), hashish, psilocybin ("mushrooms") and ecstasy pills. The officers also found processing equipment and paraphernalia including scales, a vacuum sealer, several thousand plastic bags and forty devices used to ingest CDS. The officers also recovered three personal computers, three police radio ...


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