STATE OF NEW JERSEY v. MICHELLE YACUZZIO

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Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. MICHELLE YACUZZIO, Defendant–Respondent.

DOCKET NO. A–4340–12T1

Decided: March 6, 2014

Before Judges Yannotti and Leone. Jennifer Paszkiewicz, Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant (Robert D. Bernardi, Burlington County Prosecutor, attorney;  Ms. Paszkiewicz, of counsel and on the brief).   Gerard L. DelTufo argued the cause for respondent.

Defendant was charged under Burlington County Indictment No. 10–10–1074, with one count of third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS), contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:35–10(a)(1), and thereafter filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized from her apartment.   The trial court conducted an evidentiary hearing on the motion and entered an order dated April 2, 2013, suppressing the evidence.   We granted the State's motion for leave to appeal from the trial court's order.   For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

I.

Stanley Tarasewicz has been employed by Burlington Township as a police officer since 1995.   He is also a certified emergency medical technician (EMT).   At approximately 7:16 a.m., on January 13, 2010, central dispatch informed Tarasewicz that a female called and reported that a woman was screaming through the mail slot in her door.   Tarasewicz responded to the residence and observed a woman, later identified as defendant.   She was standing outside, dressed only in a robe.   The temperature outside was thirty to forty degrees.

Tarasewicz testified that defendant was erratic.   She fluctuated from moments of being calm to speaking fast.   According to Tarasewicz, defendant rambled about some things.   He informed her the reason why the police were there, and defendant began to speak of police harassment.   She said she was a wealthy person who “owned properties all over the world.”

Tarasewicz told defendant that the police had responded “because of the yelling” but she insisted that they were there because of her car.   Tarasewicz said defendant pointed “towards this junk car [that was] sitting off to the side,” which defendant claimed was “a show car.”   He said that defendant could not hold a conversation.

Tarasewicz and another officer brought defendant back to her apartment, and they asked defendant if they could come inside to see if anyone else was there.   They entered the apartment, hoping to find another person who might assist them because defendant appeared to be dealing with a psychological issue.   According to Tarasewicz, the officers wanted to see if defendant could take care of herself or if someone else was present who could help her.

The officers determined that no one else was in the apartment, and asked defendant several questions about her physical and mental health.   Defendant told the officers she was taking herbal medicine for pain from a prior auto accident, but she was not taking any medication for her mental health.   Tarasewicz looked in the apartment for medications but did not find any.   Tarasewicz and the other officer determined that defendant was not a danger to herself or anyone else, although she was “not clear on some things.”   The officers left.

However, later that day, Tarasewicz and another officer were dispatched to defendant's apartment complex, because a woman had reported she had “shrapnel coming out of her leg.”   Tarasewicz recalled being at that location earlier in the day.   When he arrived, Tarasewicz saw the manager of the apartment complex standing out by the front door.

The manager advised Tarasewicz that he had received a call from defendant, and she told him she had fallen down.   However, there were some discrepancies concerning how she fell.   The manager called the police because he did not feel comfortable going into defendant's apartment by himself.   Tarasewicz and the manager entered defendant's apartment.

Inside, Tarasewicz heard a female yelling.   He went up the stairs and announced that the police were there.   He could still hear the yelling.   Tarasewicz followed the noise and determined that it was coming from the front bedroom.   They entered that room, where they found defendant.   She was in bed, lying on her back.   She was screaming that she was in pain and had shrapnel coming out of her leg.

Tarasewicz could not see defendant's leg because she was covered with blankets.   He tried to pull the blankets off to look at her leg, but she forcibly held the blankets in place.   Tarasewicz did not see any evidence that defendant was bleeding.   He said defendant was screaming “at the top of her lungs” about pain, and when he asked to see her leg, she said calmly that he could not do so.   Then, after a few seconds, defendant went back to screaming “at the top of her lungs.”

Through central dispatch, Tarasewicz requested the assistance of emergency medical services.   They arrived at defendant's apartment and unsuccessfully attempted to treat her.   Tarasewicz was standing near defendant's bed.   He observed a nightstand, about a foot away from the bed.   The top drawer in the nightstand was partially open, about half a foot.   Tarasewicz could see inside the drawer.

Tarasewicz saw a prescription bottle, empty baggies commonly used to package CDS, and some pills.   He glanced into a nearby trash can.   He observed a bottle of beer and vomit.   Defendant started to yell that she did not want any men in her room.   She said she would only allow a female EMT to look at her leg.   Tarasewicz went into the hallway, where he remained about fifteen or twenty seconds.

The female EMT emerged and told Tarasewicz that defendant did not have any physical injury, but thought “there was a psychological issue going on.”   Tarasewicz entered the bedroom and told defendant that they had a chair to help move her outside.   Defendant said she wanted to walk out under her own power.   Defendant walked out of her bedroom with the EMT squad.

After defendant left the bedroom, Tarasewicz went back into the room to look at the prescription bottle to see if it contained medicine for defendant.   He said he wanted to determine if the medicine was to address a psychological condition.   He also wanted to determine when the medicine was prescribed and the quantity, so that he could ascertain whether defendant had been taking it or whether she had taken “too much of it.”

Tarasewicz opened the drawer in the nightstand further and observed additional items related to CDS. He saw some pills, which were wrapped in a plastic baggie.   He said the pills were “more or less” in the form “you would get from street level sales.”   He also saw a stack of baggies, which he said was “common packaging for marijuana,” and an electronic scale.   Tarasewicz informed the EMT team of what he had observed.   Defendant was transported to a hospital for evaluation.

Tarasewicz did not confiscate the items he observed in the drawer.   He picked up the prescription bottle to see what it was, so that he could relay that information to the hospital staff.   Tarasewicz contacted his duty supervisor, reported what he had observed.   He said he thought “CDS distribution could be going on.”   The police applied for the issuance of a search warrant, and a judge granted the application.   Thereafter, Tarasewicz and several detectives executed the warrant and searched defendant's residence.

On cross-examination, Tarasewicz stated that, after the EMT checked on defendant, there was no longer a medical emergency.   The EMT did not mention any drugs or an overdose.   The EMT apparently thought defendant was suffering from some “psychological issue” and the EMT team was going to transport her to a hospital for evaluation.   He noted that he opened the drawer in the nightstand, after the EMT team walked defendant out of the apartment.

On re-direct, Tarasewicz was asked the significance of “finding vomit, alcohol, pills, and a prescription bottle in a home where somebody is having some sort of mental decompensation.”   Tarasewicz said he was first concerned about an overdose.   He also was concerned that defendant may have ingested alcohol with the pills.   He therefore wanted to determine if the medication had been prescribed for her, what the quantity was, and to see if “maybe [she had] taken” too much of the medication.

Tarasewicz also testified that this information would be important to the emergency room doctor, during his initial assessment of defendant.   He stated that it would be important for the doctor to know the medication that defendant may have taken, and whether it was a “street drug” or “prescribed” medication.

After hearing the arguments of counsel, the court placed its decision on the record.   The court found that Tarasewicz had testified credibly and accepted his testimony.   The court determined that, while the officers' initial entry into defendant's room was justified, the subsequent warrantless search of the drawer in the nightstand was impermissible because it did not come within the exceptions to the warrant requirement for community caretaking or emergency aid.

The court entered an order dated April 2, 2013, suppressing the evidence seized from defendant's apartment.   By order dated May 17, 2013, we granted the State's motion for leave to appeal.   On May 30, 2013, the trial court filed a written opinion, amplifying the reasons for suppressing the evidence.

II.

The State argues that the trial court erred by holding that the emergency-aid doctrine did not allow Officer Tarasewicz to undertake a warrantless search of the partially-opened drawer in defendant's nightstand.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution protect persons from unreasonable searches and seizures.  State v. Edmonds, 211 N.J. 117, 129 (2012).   Furthermore, “[o]ur constitutional jurisprudence expresses a clear preference for government officials to obtain a warrant issued by a neutral and detached judicial officer before executing a search.”  Ibid. (citing State v. Frankel, 179 N.J. 586, 597–98 (2004)).

Thus, searches conducted without a warrant, particularly in a home, are presumptively unreasonable.  Ibid. (citing State v. Bolte, 115 N.J. 579, 583 (1989)).   Therefore, the State must establish that the search was justified by an exception to the warrant requirement.  Id. at 130 (citing Frankel, supra, 179 N.J. at 598).   The emergency-aid doctrine is a recognized exception to the warrant requirement.  Ibid.

The doctrine “is derived from the commonsense understanding that exigent circumstances may require public safety officials, such as the police, firefighters, or paramedics, to enter a dwelling without a warrant for the purpose of protecting or preserving life, or preventing serious injury.”   Frankel, supra, 179 N.J. at 598 (citing Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385, 392, 98 S.Ct. 2408, 2413, 57 L. Ed.2d 290, 300 (1978);  State v. Stott, 171 N.J. 343, 361 (2002)).   The constitutional provisions prohibiting unreasonable searches “do not demand that public safety officials stand by in the face of an imminent danger and delay potential lifesaving measures while critical and precious time is expended obtaining a warrant.”  Id. at 599 (citing Mincey, supra, 437 U.S. at 392, 98 S.Ct. at 2418, 57 L. Ed.2d at 300;  Stott, supra, 171 N.J. at 361).

To justify a search under the emergency-aid doctrine, the State must establish that (1) the public safety officer had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency requires that he provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life or prevent serious injury;  and (2) there is a reasonable nexus between the emergency and the area or places to be searched.   Edmonds, supra, 211 N.J. at 132.

The State need not show that the officer's subjective motivation for entering the home was to render assistance, as had previously been required.  Id. at 131–32 (citing Frankel, supra, 179 N.J. at 600).   Particularly when applied to the entry of a home, the doctrine “must be ‘limited to the reasons and objectives that prompted’ the need for immediate action.”  Id. at 134 (quoting Frankel, supra, 179 N.J. at 599).

The State maintains that it satisfied the first part of the test.   It argues that Officer Tarasewicz had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency required that he provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life or prevent serious injury and the emergency justified the warrantless search of the drawer in defendant's bedroom.   We agree that the emergency justified Tarasewicz's entry into the apartment but disagree that he was justified in opening the drawer after defendant was removed.

Here, the testimony presented at the suppression hearing indicated that, on January 13, 2010, Tarasewicz responded to a residence in the Township, after a person called reporting that a woman was screaming through the mail slot in the door.   Tarasewicz found defendant, dressed only in a robe, standing outside in relatively cold weather.   Defendant's behavior was erratic.   The officers brought defendant to her apartment.

Later that day, the police received a report that a woman said she had shrapnel coming out of her leg.   Tarasewicz was dispatched to the location, and found the door to defendant's apartment was open.   He entered and heard a person screaming.   Based on these facts, Tarasewicz had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there was an emergency which required that he provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life or prevent serious injury.   Thus, the trial court correctly determined that Tarasewicz's entry into defendant's home, without a warrant, was permissible under the emergency-aid doctrine.

Our conclusion that Tarasewicz's entry into the apartment was valid is supported by Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 126 S.Ct. 1943, 164 L. Ed.2d 650 (2006).   In that case, the police officers responded to a call reporting a loud party at a residence.  Id. at 400–01, 126 S.Ct. at 1946, 164 L. Ed.2d at 656.   Through a screen door, the officers observed a brawl in the kitchen, involving a juvenile and several adults.  Id. at 401, 126 S.Ct. at 1946, 164 L. Ed.2d at 656.   The juvenile struck an adult with force, and the victim was spitting blood into a sink.  Ibid. The officers announced their presence, but the melee continued.  Ibid.

The officers entered the home to stop the altercation.  Ibid. The Supreme Court held that the officers' warrantless entry into the home was permissible because the officers had an objectively reasonable basis to conclude that the injured adult might require assistance, and the violence in the home would continue.  Id. at 406, 126 S.Ct. at 1949, 164 L. Ed.2d at 659.

The decision in Michigan v. Fisher, 558 U.S. 45, 130 S.Ct. 546, 175 L. Ed.2d 410 (2009), also supports our conclusion that Tarasewicz's entry into defendant's apartment was permissible.   In Fisher, the police officers responded to a complaint that a man, later identified as the defendant, was “going crazy.”  Id. at 45, 130 S.Ct. at 547, 175 L. Ed.2d at 412.   They looked through a window and saw the defendant “screaming and throwing things.”  Id. at 46, 130 S.Ct. at 547, 175 L. Ed.2d at 412.

Windows of the house and fence posts were broken, and blood was seen on the hood of a truck in the driveway.  Id. at 45–46, 130 S.Ct. at 547, 175 L. Ed.2d at 412.   In the house, the officers saw the defendant with a cut on his hand.  Id. at 46, 130 S.Ct. at 547, 175 L. Ed.2d at 412.   The officers asked the defendant whether he needed help.  Ibid. He responded with profanity and told them to get a warrant.  Ibid.

When one of the officers pushed the front door open part way, the defendant pointed a gun at him.  Ibid. The Supreme Court held that the officers' warrantless entry into the home was valid because the officers reasonably believed the defendant had been hurt and required treatment.  Id. at 49, 130 S.Ct. at 549, 175 L. Ed.2d at 414.

The decision of our Supreme Court in Frankel also supports our conclusion.   In Frankel, the police received a 9–1–1 call from a telephone listed in the defendant's name.  Frankel, supra, 179 N.J. at 593.   A police officer responded to the residence, and defendant answered at the door.  Ibid. A white sheet blocked the view through the door and side window.  Ibid. Defendant appeared nervous and surprised by the officer's presence.  Ibid.

The defendant said he did not make the call, and he continued to act in a nervous manner when questioned further.  Id. at 593–94.   The officer asked the defendant to step outside, and he patted him down to ensure he was not armed.  Id. at 594.   The defendant looked shocked and panicked, and asked whether the officer had a search warrant.  Ibid. He asked the officer if he needed an attorney.  Ibid.

The officer called for backup.  Ibid. He was concerned for his own safety and feared that someone inside was in danger.  Ibid. In response to further questioning, the defendant said that there was “some sexual stuff inside” and “he was embarrassed.”  Ibid. The defendant was permitted to retrieve his cordless phones from the house, and as he was doing so, the officer noticed that there were obstacles in the home which prevented a person from entering or exiting the house.  Id. at 595.

The officer eventually decided to enter the home to be sure that the defendant was alone in the house, and there was no other person present that needed help.  Ibid. The officer limited his search to areas where a person or body could be revealed.  Ibid. The officer discovered in plain view marijuana, marijuana plants, ultraviolet grow lights, and an elaborate watering system.   Id. at 595–96.

The Frankel Court determined that the officer's entry into the home was justified under the emergency-aid doctrine.  Id. at 612.   The Court said that the officer had an objectively reasonable and good-faith basis to believe that there was an emergency “that could not brook delay.”  Id. at 610.   The officer had been called to the home as a result of the 9–1–1 call, and his motivation in entering the house was to ensure that a victim was not lying somewhere in the house.  Ibid. In addition, there was no evidence that the officer had an ulterior motive in hunting for evidence of a crime.  Ibid.

The State argues that the emergency continued, which permitted Officer Tarasewicz to remain in defendant's apartment, return to defendant's bedroom after she had been removed, and open the partially-opened drawer of the nightstand further in order to determine what type or quantity of drugs defendant may have consumed.   The State contends that, at the time he conducted this search, Tarasewicz continued to have an objectively reasonable belief that defendant required medical assistance.

The State points to the following facts in support of this argument.   The State notes that, earlier, while the EMTs were attending to defendant, Tarasewicz peered into the partially-opened drawer and observed a prescription bottle, some pills and plastic baggies of the sort used to package CDS. Tarasewicz also peered into the wastebasket and saw a beer bottle and vomit.

The EMTs reported that defendant did not have any physical injuries and believed her actions were due to “psychological issues.”   Tarasewicz testified that he thought it was important to determine the type of drug that defendant may have consumed, since that information might be significant to the emergency room doctors who would be attending to defendant at the hospital.

We are convinced, however, that while Tarasewicz was justified in remaining in the apartment while the EMTs were removing defendant, the trial court correctly determined that the officer did not have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that the emergency required that he return to the bedroom in order to search the drawer of the nightstand.

The EMTs did not tell Tarasewicz they thought defendant was suffering from an overdose of drugs or the combination of drugs and alcohol.   Tarasewicz testified that he did not believe defendant was a danger to herself or others.   Tarasewicz thought that information regarding the drugs in the prescription bottle in the nightstand might be important for use by the hospital staff in evaluating defendant, but he did not have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that this information was required immediately to prevent serious injury.

As the trial court found, there was no evidence that defendant was in imminent danger at the time Tarasewicz undertook the warrantless search of the drawer in the nightstand.   The Court noted in Frankel that a police officer who enters a home “looking for a person injured or in danger may not expand the scope of the search by peering into drawers, cupboards, or wastepaper baskets.”   Frankel, supra, 179 N.J. at 599.   That is what occurred here.

The Court's decision in Edmonds supports our conclusion.   In that case, the police responded to a home after receiving a report of domestic violence possibly involving a handgun.  Edmonds, supra, 211 N.J. at 121.   A female met the officers at the downstairs door and said there was no problem in the residence.  Id. at 123.   She refused to allow the officers to enter the apartment.  Ibid. The female reported that only her eleven-year-old child was present, and the officers told her that they were going to check the apartment to determine if there were other occupants.  Ibid. The officers entered and found that the upstairs entry door was locked.  Ibid.

The child opened the door, and the police entered the apartment.  Id. at 123–24.   They found the defendant, who was known to one of the officers, in a room watching television.  Id. at 124.   They patted him down and told him to leave the room.  Ibid. The officers stood by defendant, while another officer returned to the room where the defendant had been watching television.  Ibid. Under a mattress, they found a loaded .38 caliber revolver.  Ibid. The officers seized the weapon.  Ibid. Defendant admitted that the weapon was his, and he was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon.  Ibid.

The Edmonds Court held that the police had a duty to investigate the allegation of domestic violence involving a gun.  Id. at 140.   The Court noted that the police were not required to accept the female's assertion that there was no one in the apartment, while her child remained potentially in jeopardy.  Ibid. The Court also assumed that the detention and frisk of defendant was proper.  Ibid.

The Court concluded, however, the officers were not justified in conducting a search of the apartment without a warrant.  Ibid. The Court stated that “once there was no longer an objective basis to believe that an emergency was at hand, ‘[t]he privacy interests of the home [were] entitled to the highest degree of respect.’ ”  Ibid. (quoting State v. Evers, 175 N.J. 355, 384 (2003)).   That same conclusion applies here.

Affirmed.

PER CURIAM

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