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State v. Williams

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

August 19, 2019

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
LOUIS V. WILLIAMS, Defendant-Appellant.

          Submitted January 15, 2019

          On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Indictment No. 16-11-0834.

          Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Michele Erica Friedman, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, of counsel and on the brief).

          Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Valeria Dominguez, Deputy Attorney General, of counsel and on the brief).

          Before Judges Rothstadt, Gilson and Natali.


          NATALI, J.S.C. (temporarily assigned).

         The central issue in this appeal is whether a resident of a boarding or rooming house has a reasonable expectation of privacy in areas beyond his or her bedroom door. Following an unsuccessful motion to suppress marijuana and a firearm seized from his room, defendant Louis V. Williams pled guilty to second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b)(1). Related possessory weapons charges and a disorderly-persons charge of possessing less than fifty grams of marijuana, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(4), were dismissed.[1] Defendant was sentenced to five years of imprisonment with forty-two months of parole ineligibility, and now appeals from the order denying his motion to suppress. Based on the proofs elicited at the suppression hearing, we conclude defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the common areas of his residence, and it was unreasonable for the police to enter the premises repeatedly without a warrant, exigent circumstances, or a lawful right of entry. Accordingly, we reverse.


         The following facts are gleaned from the suppression hearing, where a single witness, Detective Carlos Estevez of the New Jersey State Police, testified. The motion judge found that Estevez "portrayed candor," "bore an honest demeanor," and that his testimony was "credible."

         At around 9:30 a.m. on March 19, 2016, Estevez was in his office in Trenton when he heard gunshots from a nearby neighborhood. After checking the immediate vicinity on foot, he entered a police vehicle with his superior, Sergeant Sansone.[2] Dispatch reports from the Trenton Police Department indicated that the gunshots were fired at a nearby bar, and that the suspected shooter was an African-American male named "Louis" with an alias of "Big" who was wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt and who had fled to, and lived at, a dwelling on Spring Street.

         The officers drove to the Spring Street dwelling, where they met a Trenton Police Department officer outside. Estevez testified that from the vantage point of the sidewalk, the structure appeared to be an "attached row home" that "could be" a "normal single family home" or a "multi" family home because "[t]here [were] two floors." Estevez could not "tell [if it was] a boarding house" from the sidewalk, but testified that "other boarding houses" he observed in Trenton had similar external appearances. According to Estevez, the front door was equipped with a lock, but the door was unlocked at that time and "wasn't secured at all, not by [a] latch, not by [a] doorknob, not by [a] lock," and it simply "swung open" when he knocked on it.[3]

         When the door opened, the three officers "converged" into what Estevez described as a long hallway with a stairway leading to the second floor directly in front of him. Estevez noticed multiple doors to his left, all of which had padlocks on them, which led him to believe the building was being used as "a boarding house because usually boarding houses are multi-apartment dwellings." The officers then "cleared the common area[s]" for weapons and to "make sure" that the suspect was not "hiding . . . in that house unlawfully." The "common areas" the officers searched included the downstairs hallway, "a common bathroom" upstairs, and "a short hallway" by the bathroom.

         After clearing the common areas, Estevez and Sansone left the building and returned to their vehicle to search for the suspect in the surrounding area. During that "loop" around the area, the Trenton Police Department officer left the building, and Estevez and Sansone received a police dispatch report indicating that a crime scene was established at the bar and that "spent shell cases" were recovered, which Estevez interpreted as confirming his belief that "a gun was discharged" and "there was an actual shooting." Estevez also testified that he believed he was involved in an "active shooting" investigation.

         Estevez and Sansone returned to Spring Street and re-entered the building. Estevez proceeded to knock on two interior doors, one on the first floor and one on the second floor, both of which were answered by female residents who denied having any male roommates. Estevez then went to the second floor's "middle room door."

         As he approached that room, Estevez heard movement and smelled marijuana through the door, which he did not notice the first time he entered the dwelling. Estevez knocked on the door, announced that he was a police officer, and "told the individual to go ahead and answer the door."

         Defendant, who was unknown to Estevez at the time, opened the door shirtless but wearing pants. The door swung inward toward a room that Estevez stated was approximately eight feet by eight feet. According to Estevez, the smell of marijuana "drastically increased" when defendant opened the door, and defendant was sweating and breathing heavily as if "he just did some type of exercise." Estevez also stated that, based on his experience in shooting investigations, he knew that individuals tend to remove their shirts to avoid identification, and that his suspicions were heightened because:

[Defendant was] sweating. It's . . . early in the morning in March, still cold out. That didn't make sense to me. And then he was . . . breathing heavy. So at this point I asked him why and he told me he just woke up. So, again, the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up, something's not right, something's not fitting here. And not to mention, the odor of the burnt ember marijuana at this point is coming out of the room.

         Estevez stated that while he was standing in "the doorway," which he clarified to mean "the common hallway area," he looked into defendant's "single bedroom" and observed "a mattress on the floor," a "window on the rear wall," a "dresser" by the window, and "objects scattered around." Estevez informed defendant that he was conducting an investigation and asked defendant to provide identification. Defendant responded by stating that he "had to go get his wallet." As Estevez explained:

[Defendant] then walked towards the dresser on the left side of the room, [and] went to grab the wallet. And at that point, -- now, again, this is a shooting investigation. I'm all over his hands. I'm watching his hands closely, you know, for officer safety. It's small quarters. He goes to the back of the room. I'm watching his hands as he grabs his wallet. I see this small bag of marijuana right next to his wallet.

         Estevez testified that from his vantage point the marijuana was "in front of the wallet" on the dresser, and that once he saw the marijuana, he knew that defendant ...

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