Submitted January 15, 2019
appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division,
Mercer County, Indictment No. 16-11-0834.
E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Michele
Erica Friedman, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, of counsel
and on the brief).
S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Valeria
Dominguez, Deputy Attorney General, of counsel and on the
Judges Rothstadt, Gilson and Natali.
NATALI, J.S.C. (temporarily assigned).
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. 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.
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
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. 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.
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.
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.
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"
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."
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."
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
[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.
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
[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.
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 ...