Emergency aid exception permitted police to act. State v. Hathaway ___NJ ___ 2015 (A-69-13 )
Viewing the events as they appeared to an objectively reasonable police officer, and based on the evidence presented by the State at the suppression hearing, the police acted within the scope of the emergency-aid exception to the warrant requirement, and the gun should not have been suppressed.
Argued February 2, 2015 -- Decided August 4, 2015
ALBIN, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
In this appeal, the Court determines whether the warrantless search of a room in a casino hotel, where the police reasonably believed an armed robbery had recently occurred, violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution.
Defendant Dontae Hathaway was charged with second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon following the discovery of a handgun in his room at the Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Defendant moved to suppress the gun, arguing that its discovery was the product of an unconstitutional search. At the suppression hearing, Officer James Armstrong of the Atlantic City Police Department testified that, on March 28, 2012, while providing additional security at the Taj Mahal, he was called to the casino security podium. Several security officers conveyed that an unidentified hotel patron, who was no longer present at the podium, had reported that two black males robbed him at gunpoint in a room on the 70th floor.
Officer Armstrong did not believe that he had time to walk to the surveillance department and review footage from the alleged robbery. Instead, he asked the security team to have the department confirm the patron’s report. While awaiting a response, he requested assistance from the police department’s special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team. About five minutes later, a four-member SWAT team arrived, and Officer Armstrong was told that video footage showed the unidentified patron on an elevator with a white male, a black male, and two females. The elevator stopped on the 70th floor, the five individuals proceeded to Room 7023, and the unidentified patron later left in what appeared to be a panicked state. Concerned that there could be an armed gunman in the casino or barricaded in the room, possibly with hostages or victims, Officer Armstrong, the SWAT team, and casino security officers set themselves up outside Room 7023. When calls to the room, via telephone and orally through the slightly open door, went unanswered, the officers entered with guns drawn. They found neither victims nor a gunman. However, an open duffel bag was on a cabinet by the bed, in which an automatic black Beretta handgun was readily visible. Security determined that the room was registered to defendant, whose name was found on documents inside the bag.
After hearing Officer Armstrong’s testimony, the trial court reviewed over an hour’s worth of video footage, noting several inconsistencies between it and the information conveyed to Officer Armstrong. The court asserted that Officer Armstrong should have viewed the footage himself prior to taking action. It also deemed the unidentified patron’s report unreliable, and found that Officer Armstrong improperly relied on hearsay filtered through untrained security personnel. The court further reasoned that the open hotel room door suggested that a person had left the room and would return soon, and not that a gunman may have been hiding inside. Consequently, the court determined that the officers lacked probable cause or a reasonable suspicion or articulable belief to conclude that there was an ongoing crime or victims in the room. It found that no exigency excused the officers’ failure to apply for a warrant, which may have been obtained telephonically within half an hour.
The State moved for leave to appeal, and the Appellate Division affirmed the suppression. The panel agreed that the unverified information reported by the alleged victim was insufficient to establish probable cause. It noted that Officer Armstrong failed to corroborate the report and relied on what was ultimately discovered to be an inaccurate description of the surveillance footage. The panel concluded that the State did not demonstrate exigent circumstances sufficient to justify the search, noting that the room could have been secured while a telephonic warrant was obtained. The Court granted the State’s motion for leave to appeal. 217 N.J. 289 (2014).
HELD: Viewing the events as they appeared to an objectively reasonable police officer, and based on the evidence presented by the State at the suppression hearing, the police acted within the scope of the emergency-aid exception to the warrant requirement, and the gun should not have been suppressed.
1. In order to determine whether the search of defendant’s hotel room comported with the dictates of both the Federal and State Constitutions, the Court asks whether the trial court applied the proper legal principles governing New Jersey’s search and seizure jurisprudence and whether its factual findings are supported by the record. Legal matters are reviewed de novo, while factual findings are entitled to deference and must be upheld when supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. (pp. 13-14)
2. Police are generally required to secure a warrant prior to conducting a search. Searches conducted without a warrant are presumptively invalid. The State bears the burden of demonstrating that a warrantless search is justified by one of the few exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as the exigent circumstances exception, which is applicable when officers do not have sufficient time to obtain a warrant in light of the urgent circumstances confronting them. Here, the Court focuses on the emergency-aid doctrine, which is a subset of the exigent circumstances exception. (pp. 14-16)
3. In order to justify a warrantless search under the emergency-aid doctrine, the State must satisfy a two-prong test, showing that: (1) the officer had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency required the provision of immediate assistance to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury; and (2) there was a reasonable nexus between the emergency and the place searched. When assessing the reasonableness of an officer’s decision, courts must view events in real time, rather than through the context provided by hindsight, recognizing that those who must act in the heat of the moment do not have the luxury of lengthy deliberation. Moreover, officers need only reasonably believe, not be certain, that a danger exists requiring prompt action. The scope of the search under the emergency-aid doctrine is limited to the reasons prompting the search. (pp. 16-18)
4. The applicability of the emergency-aid doctrine in this case largely depends on whether Officer Armstrong had a reasonable basis to credit the unidentified patron’s report as conveyed by security personnel. An objectively reasonable police officer may assume that an ordinary citizen reporting a crime is providing reliable information, which does not lose its reliability when passed from one law enforcement officer to another. A review of New Jersey jurisprudence shows that, when determining whether exigent circumstances exist, the police may rely on information that may be classified as hearsay in a courtroom setting. The ultimate test is whether, under the totality of the circumstances, the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable given the nature of the information at hand. Here, the unidentified patron did not affirmatively attempt to hide his identity, and Officer Armstrong was capable of gauging the reliability of the security personnel who conveyed the report. Moreover, Officer Armstrong did not take the report at face value, instead seeking confirmation of the allegations from the surveillance department. Given the information available, and within the time constraints pressed on him by the report of a gunman on the loose in the Taj Mahal, Officer Armstrong had no objectively reasonable basis to doubt the veracity of the report. (pp. 18-26)
5. Applying the two-prong test of the emergency-aid doctrine, the Court first asks whether Officer Armstrong had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency required that he provide immediate assistance in order to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury. The Court finds that the trial court, which improperly viewed the events through the prism of hindsight rather than as they were unfolding, erred as a matter of law in dismissing the unidentified patron’s report as unreliable. Officer Armstrong could not ignore the report of an armed robbery, a potential grave danger to public safety, because the patron was unavailable for questioning. In the heat of the moment, based on seemingly reliable information, Officer Armstrong acted in an objectively reasonable manner. Moreover, given the totality of the circumstances, it was reasonable to infer that Room 7023 contained an incapacitated victim or a hidden gunman. Consequently, the second prong of the emergency-aid doctrine test was met because there was a reasonable nexus between the emergency and the search. Thus, the officers were not obligated to obtain a warrant prior to entering the room. Although the scope of the search was limited to looking for possible victims and the gunman, the handgun was in plain view, rendering its seizure lawful. (pp. 26-30)
6. In light of the trial court’s misapplication of the law governing exigent circumstances, which resulted in a number of clearly mistaken factual findings, the Appellate Division’s affirmance of the suppression must be reversed. The trial court’s decision was based on the State’s presentation alone, relieving the defense of the need to call any witnesses. On remand, defendant may call witnesses to show that the State did not meet its burden. The trial court must make factual findings based on all of the credible evidence. (pp. 30-31)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.