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State v. Mitchell

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

August 6, 2013

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
STEFAN MITCHELL and JAMES FREEMAN, Defendants-Respondents.


Submitted April 23, 2013

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Indictment No. 11-08-1320.

Gaetano T. Gregory, Acting Hudson County Prosecutor, attorney for respondent (Kristen Brewer, Special Deputy Attorney General/ Acting Assistant Prosecutor, on the brief).

Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for respondent Stefan Mitchell (Jay L. Wilensky, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, of counsel and on the brief).

Before Judges Alvarez and St. John.


The State on leave granted appeals the July 24, 2012 order granting defendants Stefan Mitchell and James Freeman's motions to suppress certain evidence seized from Mitchell's home. After reviewing the arguments advanced on appeal, in light of the record and applicable law, we affirm.


We briefly summarize the relevant procedural history and the facts based on the record before us.

On August 2, 2011, defendants were indicted under Indictment No. 11-08-1320 for various drug and weapons offenses. On January 23, 2012, Mitchell filed a motion to suppress all physical evidence as a result of an unlawful search. Freeman joined the motion and asserted that a separate unlawful search occurred stemming from the same facts.

The Jersey City Police Department had been monitoring defendants for alleged drug related offenses, which included distributing narcotics from Mitchell's apartment. On April 2, 2011, Freeman was arrested and a bottle of Oxycodone was found in his possession. Based upon the discovery of Oxycodone, the police allege they began to prepare an affidavit to secure a search warrant for Mitchell's dwelling. However, before the search warrant was issued, Mitchell exited his dwelling at approximately 9:00 p.m. and was taken into custody on the basis of outstanding open warrants for his arrest. Mitchell informed the arresting officers that his eight year old autistic son was alone in the house. The officers contacted Mitchel's sister, Dawn Hoffman, to come and take custody of the child.

At the suppression hearing, the State argued that Hoffman arrived at Mitchell's home and was escorted inside to retrieve clothes for the child while the remaining officers waited outside and secured the area until a search warrant was obtained. The warrant was signed and dated on April 3, 2011, at 12:03 a.m. Once the warrant was issued, the officers entered and searched the home finding a loaded handgun and twenty-four glass vials of cocaine under the kitchen sink.

Mitchell submitted that the officers searched his residence prior to receiving the warrant. Hoffman, a corrections officer, testified that when she went into Mitchell's dwelling to retrieve clothes for his son, she saw a police officer looking around. She did not see him opening drawers but "he was he was looking around before I got in there because when I walked inside I saw him moving around looking around." Hoffman added that this officer was "[w]alking around, looking around, moving, moving things and looking around."

At the hearing, Mitchell's personal property receipt, which was signed and dated on April 2, 2011, at the time of his arrest, was entered into evidence. The receipt stated that Mitchell was being charged with violating various drug and weapons offenses. The motion judge found this "relevant because the listed charges could not have been included on the form until after the search occurred." Defendant maintained that the police searched his residence, found the handgun and drugs, processed him at the police station and listed the potential charges in accordance with the items found, and then secured a warrant in an attempt to legitimize their search.

The State contended that the search was conducted after the warrant was issued, and the offenses included in the receipt were added after the legal search was completed and defendant was processed. Officer Ray Weber testified that on April 2, he filled out everything on the receipt except the charges which were not filled in until after the search warrant was obtained on April 3.

In a July 24, 2012 opinion the motion judge denied in part and granted in part defendants' motions to suppress determining: (1) that the search of Freeman was lawful and suppression of the Oxycodone was not required; and (2) the police prematurely searched Mitchell's dwelling before securing a search warrant and thus the handgun and drugs found within Mitchell's home had to be suppressed.

In his cogent and comprehensive opinion, Judge Joseph V. Isabella determined:

After examining the testimony at the hearing and reviewing the submitted materials, this Court agrees with the Defense's version of the events for the following reasons: First, this Court finds that Ms. Hoffman's testimony was credible and is inclined to believe her recollection of the events. Second, the property receipt entered into evidence lists the arrest date and is signed and dated prior to the execution of the warrant, thus, Mitchell was . . . processed at the police station before the warrant was issued. Such information provides additional weight that the search preceded the warrant. Third, the listed charges on the receipt could not have been given until after the search was conducted, consequently, this information along with the dates on the receipt supplies more credibility for the Defense. Lastly, the claim that the offenses were added later is without merit because after being processed, the defendant is given a copy of the receipt and in order to amend the document, the processing officer would have to locate the defendant and either change his copy or provide a new one. No testimony of such action was elicited during the hearing so it is very unlikely such action took place. consequently, pursuant to Rule 1:7-4 of the New Jersey Court Rules, which vests the court with the authority to determine facts, this Court finds that the search preceded the execution of the warrant.

On July 30, 2012, the motion judge issued a stay of his order. This appeal ensued.

On appeal, the State raises the following issues for our consideration:



Our review of a trial judge's decision on a motion to suppress is limited. State v. Robinson, 200 N.J. 1, 15 (2009). We must uphold the trial judge's factual findings, so long as they are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. Ibid. (quoting State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007)). Additionally, we afford deference to a trial judge's findings "which are substantially influenced by [the judge's] opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the 'feel' of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy[.]" State v. Davila, 203 N.J. 97, 109-10 (2010) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

When a reviewing court is satisfied that the findings of the trial court could reasonably have been reached on the record, "its task is complete and it should not disturb the result, even though it has the feeling it might have reached a different conclusion were it the trial tribunal." State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964). Nevertheless, "if the trial court's findings are so clearly mistaken 'that the interests of justice demand intervention and correction, ' then the appellate court should review 'the record as if it were deciding the matter at inception and make its own findings and conclusions.'" State v. Mann, 203 N.J. 328, 337 (2010) (quoting Johnson, supra, 42 N.J. at 162). "[A] reviewing court owes no deference to the trial court in deciding matters of law. When a question of law is at stake, the appellate court must apply the law as it understands it." Ibid. (citations omitted).

Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution, "[a] warrantless search is presumed invalid unless it falls within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement." State v. Cooke, 163 N.J. 657, 664 (2000) (citing State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211, 230 (1981)). Under both the federal and state constitutions, "judicially-authorized search warrants are strongly preferred before law enforcement officers conduct a search, particularly of a home." State v. Johnson, 193 N.J. 528, 552 (2008) (citing Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 748-49, 104 S.Ct. 2091, 2097, 80 L.Ed.2d 732, 742 (1984); Elders, supra, 192 N.J. at 246). Indeed, "[b]ecause our constitutional jurisprudence generally favors warrants based on probable cause, all warrantless searches or seizures are 'presumptively unreasonable.'" Ibid. (quoting Elders, supra, 192 N.J. at 246).

The State bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence the validity of a warrantless search. State v. Edmonds, 211 N.J. 117, 128 (2012). In Edmonds, the Supreme Court recently upheld a trial court's determination that a warrantless search of a home was objectively unreasonable and could not be justified by the community caretaking exception to the constitutional warrant requirement. Id. at 121.

The State's claim that the charges were filled in on the receipt after the issuance of the warrant and the ensuing search, stretches the bounds of credulity. The police would have us believe that the officer who filled out the property receipt initially left the charges blank even though he had no way of knowing whether any contraband would be recovered or related charges would be filled. Additionally, Mitchell was arrested on open warrants which was the only fact supposedly known to the processing officer at the time the receipt was completed. If the officer did not know at that time that a gun and drugs had been seized, he would have filed out the receipt showing the open warrants as the reason for the arrest. Therefore, we uphold Judge Isabella's factual findings that the search preceded the issuance of the warrant since those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record.

The State next argues that the motion court erred by finding that the emergency aid doctrine did not justify the search of the home. Again, we disagree.

To justify a warrantless search based on the emergency aid doctrine, "the State must prove only that (1) the officer had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency requires that he provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury and (2) there was a reasonable nexus between the emergency and the area or places to be searched." Edmonds, supra, 211 N.J. at 132 (internal quotations omitted).

The officers' initial entry into the home was justified under the community caretaking doctrine. They entered in effect at the request of Mitchell to provide aid to his son. However, we are not faced with circumstances where the gun and drugs were discovered in plain view. They were secreted from sight underneath the kitchen sink. There was no nexus between the area searched and the protection of Mitchell's son. Therefore, there is no justification for the warrantless search based on the emergency aid doctrine.

We now turn to the question of whether the motion judge correctly analyzed this search and seizure under the inevitable discovery doctrine. The State contends that the motion judge incorrectly distinguished our holding in State v. DeLane, 207 N.J.Super. 45 (App. Div. 1986). In DeLane, we concluded that the exclusionary rule should not be applied under the inevitable discovery exception. Id. at 53. Judge Isabella determined that unlike DeLane, the gun and drugs were not in plain view, the officers entered Mitchell's home with the "purpose of performing a search" not to prevent evidence from being destroyed.

Further, the judge noted that "the State in the present case did not try to justify the search based on a warrantless exception but instead insisted that it was done with a warrant."

The inevitable discovery doctrine requires the State to demonstrate by clear and convincing proof that: (1) "proper, normal and specific investigatory procedures would have been pursued in order to complete the investigation of the case"; (2) "under all of the surrounding relevant circumstances the pursuit of those procedures would have inevitably resulted in the discovery of the evidence"; and (3) "the discovery of the evidence through the use of such procedures would have occurred wholly independently of the discovery of such evidence by unlawful means." State v. Sugar, 100 N.J. 214, 238 (1985); see also State v. Holland, 176 N.J. 344, 361-62 (2003) (applying, in a separate portion of the Court's opinion, the various factors of the inevitable discovery doctrine).

Given the police representation that the gun and drugs were seized only after the issuance of a warrant, reliance on the inevitable discovery doctrine is both factually and legally misplaced. We conclude that the State has failed in its burden to prove by clear and evidence the elements of the inevitable discovery doctrine.


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