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State v. Hummel

Supreme Court of New Jersey

March 13, 2018

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
LORI A. HUMMEL, Defendant-Respondent.

          Argued October 24, 2017

         On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Sara M. Quigley, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney; Sara M. Quigley, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Elizabeth C. Jarit, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Elizabeth C. Jarit, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Alexi Machek Velez argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation (Edward L. Barocas, Legal Director, attorney; Alexi Machek Velez, Alexander R. Shalom, Edward L. Barocas, and Jeanne M. LoCicero on the brief).

         TIMPONE, J., writing for the Court.

         The Court considers the legality of the police's search and seizure of the contents of defendant Lori Hummel's handbag while she was detained at the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office.

         On December 5, 2010, Thomas Carbin was stabbed to death. On December 7, 2010, Investigator Gary Krohn advised defendant that he was going to bring her to the police station for two outstanding traffic bench warrants; he drove her to the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office. There, he introduced defendant to Detective Bryn Wilden and Sergeant James Ballenger. Detective Wilden then escorted defendant into an interrogation room.

         Defendant placed her purse on the table in front of her. Around 1:56 p m, Detective Wilden and Sergeant Ballenger entered defendant's interrogation room to begin questioning her. The detectives took seats at the table without removing defendant's purse or frisking her. About a minute into questioning, defendant reached into and rummaged through her purse to retrieve her cell phone. She checked the time and advised the detectives that she had to pick up her daughter by 3:20 p m. The detectives did not comment on her time constraint. Detective Wilden then asked defendant to raise her right hand and swore her in. The detectives began asking defendant substantive questions without advising her of her rights under Miranda v. Arizona. 384 U.S. 436 (1966). In response to questions from the detectives about her cell phone, defendant began to look through her purse for a receipt showing her recent cell phone purchase. The detectives kept questioning defendant about her relationship with the victim.

         The detectives left defendant alone in the room. She put her belongings back into her purse and stepped outside, asking if she could leave to pick up her daughter. The detectives did not permit her to leave. She then asked, "Am I arrested?" Detective Wilden responded that "technically" she had traffic warrants and that they still had questions for her. Defendant stated that she thought she wanted to get a lawyer. After briefly asking questions about defendant's decision to retain a lawyer, the detectives ceased talking to defendant and left the room.

         Soon after, Detective Wilden cuffed defendant's right ankle to a bar on the floor and told defendant that she was being detained and that she had an outstanding warrant. Defendant asked several times whether she could make a phone call to her lawyer. Detective Wilden took defendant's purse from the table, and defendant stated that she did not like that he had her pocketbook. Sergeant Ballenger responded that defendant was "in custody." As Detective Wilden began walking out, defendant said, "Hopefully that $500 ain't missing out of there."

         In response to defendant's comment, the detectives began taking everything out of her purse. They asked if she would rather search the purse herself, but defendant declined. Detective Wilden found two electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards issued through New Jersey's "Families First" supplemental income program. He asked defendant if the cards were hers. She responded that everything in the pocketbook was hers. Detective Wilden read her the name of another individual on one of the cards. Defendant disavowed that she knew that individual or how the card wound up in her purse. Detective Wilden then put all the items back into the purse and left the room with it. The detectives left defendant shackled for over two hours. At one point she asked why she could not get a lawyer, and the detectives failed to allow her to call one. Around 5:48 p.m., the detectives unsecured defendant's ankle and escorted her out of the room to be released. Police arrested defendant three days later.

         Defendant moved to suppress her statements to police and the physical evidence obtained during her interrogation. The trial court granted defendant's motion to suppress her statements to police but denied her motion to suppress physical evidence. Defendant appealed from the trial court's denial of her motion to suppress physical evidence. The Appellate Division panel found that the Families First EBT card should have been suppressed because the detectives' inventory search developed into a warrantless investigatory search. The panel ruled that defendant could apply within thirty days to withdraw her guilty plea and to have her conviction vacated and her case listed for trial. The Court denied defendant's petition for certification, 229 N.J. 3 (2017), but granted the State's cross-petition for certification, 229 N.J. 17 (2017).

         HELD: The Court finds no valid inventory search and therefore affirms the Appellate Division's determination that the evidence seized during the search should be suppressed.

         1. One narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement is the inventory search. An inventory search is not an independent legal concept but rather an incidental administrative step following arrest and preceding incarceration. Police may search an arrestee without a warrant and inventory the property in the arrestee's possession before he or she is jailed. Such searches "serve[] a three-fold purpose: protection of the inventoried property while in police custody, shielding the police and storage bailees from false property claims, and safeguarding the police from potential danger." State v. Mangold, 82 N.J. 575, 581-82 (1980). (pp. 12-13)

         2. An inventory search must be reasonable under the circumstances to pass constitutional muster. In Mangold, the Court explained that the propriety of an inventory search involves a two-step inquiry: (1) whether the impoundment of the property is justified; and (2) whether the inventory procedure was legal. Id. at 583. For there to be a lawful inventory search, there must be a lawful impoundment. Courts need only analyze the reasonableness of the inventory search if the impoundment is justified. Several factors are relevant to the reasonableness inquiry. They include "the scope of the search, the procedure used, and the availability of less intrusive alternatives." Id. at 584. (pp. 13-14)

         3. Under the first Mangold inquiry, the detectives' impoundment of defendant's purse was not justified. The detectives had not arrested defendant before seeking to impound her purse. Defendant kept her purse open and within her reach for the entire interrogation. She rummaged through her bag several times in front of the detectives. The detectives did not frisk defendant at any point during her detention. They sought to remove her bag from the interrogation room only after she asked for an attorney. Crucially, they asked defendant if she would rather examine the contents of her purse herself. It is clear that had valid safety concerns existed at the time they sought to impound her bag, the officers would not have given defendant the option to search her own purse, (pp. 14-15)

         4. Even if the initial impoundment was justified under the first Mangold inquiry, the search would fail under the balancing test required by the second. The detectives initiated the search to find the $500 defendant claimed her purse contained. The scope of the search should have been limited to that $500. The State concedes that the departmental policy for inventory searches is unknown. There is no way then to determine whether the detectives' search was executed according to any purported policy or practice. Finally, the detectives had reasonable, less intrusive alternatives available to protect them against false theft claims that would have simultaneously respected defendant's constitutionally protected privacy rights. The inventory search exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement does not apply, and the detectives' search was unconstitutional, (pp. 15-18)

         5. The State concedes that the detectives did not conduct a "traditional" inventory search. The record reveals that nearly every aspect of the purported inventory search was not "traditional." They did not formally arrest her that day, but rather let her leave and arrested her three days later. The Court remands to permit defendant to raise issues she has preserved before a PCR court, or withdraw her guilty plea and continue before the trial court, (pp. 18-19)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED and the matter is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         JUSTICE LaVECCHIA, CONCURRING IN PART AND DISSENTING IN PART, concurs in the judgment but expresses the view that the Court should have re-considered the denial of defendant's petition for certification. By not hearing now defendant's multi-faceted argument that improper police procedures rendered all of her statements and all evidence obtained during her custodial interrogation fruits of the poisonous tree, the Court missed addressing the prerequisite question to an inventory-search analysis, according to Justice LaVecchia.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and SOLOMON join in JUSTICE TIMPONE's opinion. JUSTICE LaVECCHIA filed a separate, partially concurring and partially dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE ALBIN joins.

          OPINION

          TIMPONE JUSTICE

         This case is before us on the narrow issue of the legality of the police's search and seizure of the contents of defendant Lori Hummel's handbag while she was detained at the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office. We find no valid inventory search. We therefore affirm the Appellate Division's determination that the evidence seized during the search should be suppressed. We remand to permit the defendant to withdraw her guilty plea and continue at the trial court level or, in the alternative, to proceed before a PCR court on other issues she has preserved.

         I.

         We cull the following ...


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