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State v. Williams

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

August 29, 2019

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
TEOSHIE WILLIAMS, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued October 29, 2018

          On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Indictment No. 14-09-0992.

          Molly O'Donnell Meng, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Molly O'Donnell Meng, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Sarah D. Brigham, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent (Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Jenny M. Hsu, Deputy Attorney General, of counsel and on the brief).

          Before Judges Messano, Gooden Brown, and Rose.

          OPINION

          GOODEN BROWN, J.A.D.

         Following the denial of her motion to suppress evidence seized from her apartment without a search warrant, defendant Teoshie Williams entered a negotiated guilty plea to third-degree hindering apprehension, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(a)(1), and was sentenced to fines only. Under the terms of the plea agreement, the remaining eight counts charged in a forty-six count indictment, [1]consisting of three counts of drug possession-related charges, four counts of child endangerment, and one count of hindering apprehension, were dismissed.

         The sole issue before us in this appeal is whether police lawfully entered and searched defendant's apartment. More particularly, defendant argues:

THE INITIAL ENTRY INTO THE APARTMENT, THE PROTECTIVE SWEEP, AND THE SUBSEQUENT SEARCH WERE UNCONSTITUTIONAL. THEREFORE, THE COCAINE SEIZED MUST BE SUPPRESSED AS THE FRUIT OF THOSE UNLAWFUL SEARCHES.

         We reject these contentions and affirm.

         I.

         At the suppression hearing, six police witnesses testified, namely, New Brunswick Police Officers Miguel Chang, John Yurkovic, William Contreras, and Edward Bobadilla, as well as Detective Brandon Epstein and Sergeant Michael Yurkovic.[2] Lurine Brinson testified for the defense. The motion record revealed that at approximately 6:30 p.m. on July 9, 2013, Chang responded to a call from Commercial Avenue in New Brunswick and spoke to the caller, Shanae Alston. Alston advised Chang that she had obtained custody of her niece, A.W., a minor, who was inside a third-floor apartment with her (A.W.'s) mother, Lurine Brinson. After showing Chang a copy of the court order, Alston explained that Lurine Brinson was "wanted for questioning" because her two brothers, Shakil and Ivery Brinson, were suspects in a homicide in Irvington. Alston sought police assistance in obtaining custody of A.W., and believed that Shakil and Ivery Brinson were both "most likely" inside the apartment, along with Lurine Brinson and A.W.

         Although Chang was accustomed to handling custody disputes, given the information about homicide suspects, he called his supervisor, Sergeant M. Yurkovic (the Sergeant), and "asked him to come . . . to the scene" because he was concerned about officer safety. The Sergeant promptly responded, along with Contreras, Bobadilla, and J. Yurkovic (Yurkovic). Once they arrived, Chang relayed the information Alston had provided and the Sergeant read the child custody order. The Sergeant contacted a supervisor in the Irvington Police Department as well as his own dispatch and confirmed that Shakil and Ivery Brinson had active warrants for a murder charge involving the use of a firearm. Upon receiving the confirmation, the officers proceeded to the apartment identified by Alston.

         As they approached the third-floor apartment, Yurkovic had "a long arm"[3] slung over his shoulder, while the other officers' guns were holstered. Upon arrival, Chang knocked on the door several times and announced "police." Although the officers heard "movement inside" and "people talking," they waited approximately "two to three minutes" before someone eventually opened the door. The delay in opening the door and the sounds emanating from inside the apartment "heightened" Yurkovic's "suspicions" that the two suspects were "possibly" in the apartment.

         An individual later identified as Shavonda Stokes opened the door.[4]Mistaking Stokes for a minor, Chang asked whether her "mom [was] home." At that point, an individual later identified as defendant came to the door. Chang advised defendant that police were there "for a custody issue," and asked if they could "come in[.]" Defendant responded, "[s]ure," and allowed the officers to enter the apartment. Once inside, the officers observed four minors and three female adults in the living room area. Chang then informed defendant that they were called "for a custody issue concerning [A.W.]," but also received "information" that there were possibly "two homicide fugitives inside the apartment[.]" Defendant advised the officers that "they[] [were] not here." After defendant confirmed she was the lawful resident of the apartment, Chang asked defendant if they could conduct a "protective sweep," to which defendant responded, "[s]ure, go ahead."

         After defendant consented, Chang "went straight down the hallway[, ]" "quickly checked the bathroom . . . on the right side of the hallway," and then proceeded to a small "bedroom . . . at the end of the hallway." Inside the bedroom, he observed "feet hanging out between . . . two air mattresses." He "flipped over the top air mattress" and found an individual later identified as Shakil Brinson "hiding between the air mattresses." Chang placed Shakil Brinson in handcuffs, "[led] him down the hallway," and "pass[ed] him off to the other officers." Meanwhile, Yurkovic also went "down the hallway" to the master bedroom on "the left." Inside the master bedroom, Yurkovic found an individual later identified as Musset Celestin, Jr. seated on the bed, and escorted him to the living room with the other officers. Upon resuming the sweep, Yurkovic "check[ed] the [hallway] closet," and found another individual, later identified as Ivery Brinson, "hiding under a pile of clothing." Yurkovic promptly placed him in handcuffs and led him to the living room. According to Chang and Yurkovic, the sweep lasted "[a]pproximately one to two minutes" and was confined to areas where "a person could hide." They testified no "drawers" or "cabinets" were "open[ed]" during the sweep.

         Thereafter, while awaiting further instructions, the officers secured the scene by ensuring that nobody entered the apartment. The Brinson brothers were separated from the other occupants and placed under arrest. Upon learning that an investigator from the Essex County Prosecutor's Office (ECPO) wanted to search the apartment for evidence related to the Irvington homicide, the officers remained at the scene. Later, Detective Brandon Epstein, who was trained in consensual searches, responded to "assist" with the search of the apartment. At approximately 9:00 p.m., accompanied by an ECPO detective, Epstein requested defendant's consent to search the apartment by reading defendant the consent to search form. Initially, defendant "had a question" and was permitted to "consult[] with another male [who] was" at the scene. Thereafter, defendant told the detectives that "she needed to make a phone call to her [l]awyer," which she was also permitted to do.

          When defendant returned, Epstein again read the consent to search form to defendant and requested her consent. Defendant then consented to the search and signed the consent to search form, indicating on the form that she was not waiving her right to be present during the search. The entire process of securing defendant's consent to search, which lasted approximately fifteen minutes, was recorded on a mobile video recorder (MVR). The videotaped recording was played during the hearing. After obtaining defendant's consent, Yurkovic and Contreras performed a search of the apartment in defendant's presence. In the master bedroom, Yurkovic recovered "a large bag of cocaine under the mattress." As a result, defendant was arrested and charged, along with the three other adult occupants, Celestin, Stokes, and Lurine Brinson.

         The defense version of what transpired during the police encounter conflicted with the State's. According to Lurine Brinson, Stokes opened the door as soon as she heard the knock and had "a gun [pointed] in her face" by Yurkovic. Defendant immediately "jumped up" and went to the door, at which point the officers went around her, and, with guns drawn, "started searching the [apartment]." Lurine testified the officers did not advise defendant that she did not have to consent or permit a protective sweep. Further, according to Lurine, none of the officers asked her for her name or who her child was until much later.

          Following the hearing, the judge denied the motion. In a written decision issued on November 3, 2014, [5] the judge found the officers' testimony credible and made detailed factual findings consistent with their version. Next, the judge recounted at length the governing principles and applicable case law. Applying State v. Gamble, 218 N.J. 412 (2014), the judge rejected the defense contention that Alston's information was comparable to an uncorroborated anonymous tip that did not provide the requisite reasonable suspicion to justify the subsequent protective sweep. The judge explained:

[T]he [p]olice were able to verify all the information that . . . Alston told them. Testimony reveals that . . . Alston was a person who appeared to be worthy of belief. She had not only requested assistance with a child custody order, but enhanced her credibility by actually producing a copy of that order. She also told police that Ivery and Shakil Brinson had a murder warrant out for their arrest - information that was confirmed by Sergeant Yurkovic and verified with dispatch and with the Irvington Police Department. She was not merely an "unverified" person making a claim. She was a person[, ] who in a short period of time, had provided two pieces of information that were verified as true by outside sources.

         Thus, considering the "verified information," the judge concluded that "the police . . . had credible evidence giving rise to a reasonable articulable suspicion that the area to be swept harbored individuals posing a danger." Further, "considering all the facts leading up to the search," the judge determined that the police had "a legitimate purpose to be present at the scene and subsequently perform a cursory search of the premises upon entry, with or without consent." Additionally, the judge found that the protective sweep complied with Davila's[6] requirements that "the sweep" be "cursory and limited in scope to locations in which an individual could be concealed."

         In that regard, the judge described the defense argument "that the search was a pretext to search without a warrant" as "unsubstantiated and without merit." On the contrary, the judge found "no indication that the police exceeded the permissible scope of a protective sweep" because the "[o]fficers moved through the two[-]bedroom apartment relatively quickly and only looked in places where individuals could be concealed." In fact, according to the judge, "[a]ll the individuals were found . . . in areas . . . conducive to hiding." Thus, the judge concluded that "based upon the totality of all the circumstance[s] existing at the time," "all requirements to conduct a ...


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