STATE OF NEW JERSEY v. RANEESHA GRIFFIN

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Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff–Respondent, v. RANEESHA GRIFFIN, Defendant–Appellant.

DOCKET NO. A–3952–11T2

Decided: March 13, 2014

Before Judges Ashrafi and Leone. Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Kevin G. Byrnes, Designated Counsel, on the brief). John J. Hoffman, Acting Attorney General, attorney for respondent (Jennifer E. Kmieciak, Deputy Attorney General, of counsel and on the brief).

Defendant Raneesha Griffin appeals from the denial of her motion to suppress evidence of drug dealing seized from her home during the execution of a search warrant.   We affirm.

A Middlesex County grand jury indicted defendant on ten counts charging various second- and third-degree drug offenses, as well as second-degree endangering the welfare of a child.   The indictment arose from police investigation of illegal drug sales in New Brunswick.   The police obtained information from confidential informants, conducted surveillance of defendant, and arranged for controlled drug purchases by the informants.   The informants were able to identify defendant and her drug supplier, Israel Colon.   Based on that investigation, law enforcement officers obtained several search warrants and executed them on March 16, 2009.

After indictment, defendant moved to suppress the evidence seized from her home, which the court denied.   Defendant then entered into a plea agreement with the State and pleaded guilty to third-degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35–5(a)(1) and –5(b)(3), second-degree possession of PCP with intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35–5(a)(1) and

–5(b)(7), and second-degree endangering the welfare of a child, N.J.S.A. 2C:24–4(a).   Defendant was sentenced in September 2010 to an aggregate term of six years in prison.

On appeal, defendant argues:

THE DEFENDANT'S RIGHT TO BE FREE FROM UNREASONABLE SEARCHES AND SEIZURES AS GUARANTEED BY THE FOURTH AMENDMENT TO THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION AND ART. I, PAR. 7 OF THE NEW JERSEY CONSTITUTION WAS VIOLATED.

A. THE SEARCH WARRANT WAS ISSUED WITHOUT AN ADEQUATE SHOWING OF PROBABLE CAUSE.

B. THE NO–KNOCK PROVISION OF THE SEARCH WARRANT WAS UNJUSTIFIED AND INVALID.

A police search conducted pursuant to a warrant is presumed to be lawful, and the defendant challenging the search bears the burden of proving a constitutional violation.  State v. Sullivan, 169 N.J. 204, 211 (2001);  State v. Valencia, 93 N.J. 126, 133 (1983).   We defer to the finding of probable cause by the judge who reviewed the application for the warrant and found sufficient probable cause for the search.  State v. Chippero, 201 N.J. 14, 32–33 (2009);  Sullivan, supra, 169 N.J. at 211.

“ ‘[P]robable cause is a flexible, nontechnical concept’ that requires balancing ‘the governmental need for enforcement of the criminal law against the citizens' constitutionally protected right of privacy.’ ”  State v. Keyes, 184 N.J. 541, 553–54 (2005) (quoting State v. Kasabucki, 52 N.J. 110, 116 (1968)).   Police can establish probable cause for the issuance of a search warrant by demonstrating “a well-grounded suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed.”  State v. Johnson, 171 N.J. 192, 214 (2002) (quoting Sullivan, supra, 169 N.J. at 211) (internal quotation marks omitted).

We reject defendant's contention that the affidavit in support of the search warrant for her home was deficient because it contained only unreliable and ambiguous accusations made by informants.   The affidavit was submitted by an investigator working with the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office who was experienced in narcotics cases.   The affiant had received information from a detective of the New Brunswick Police Department that defendant was selling illegal drugs in Middlesex County and that her boyfriend, Colon, was her drug supplier.   The New Brunswick detective had previously obtained a search warrant for defendant's residence, but defendant moved before the warrant could be executed.   The affidavit in support of the prior New Brunswick search warrant was incorporated by reference and provided to the judge in this case with the application for new search warrants.

In his affidavit, the Prosecutor's investigator stated that, during the week of February 15, 2009, he received information from a confidential informant designated CI# 1 that defendant was a “runner” for Colon.   CI# 1 said that Colon regularly visited and stayed in the daytime at defendant's New Brunswick apartment and supplied defendant with illegal drugs to sell.   CI# 1 also told the investigator that Colon lived with another woman at an address in Plainsboro where he stored his drug supply.   The informant was able to identify defendant by a photograph maintained in governmental identification records.

A second confidential informant, CI# 2, provided the same information about defendant and Colon, including that Colon supplied defendant with illegal drugs to sell.   CI# 2 was also able to identify defendant by means of a photograph.

During the week of February 22, 2009, investigators arranged for CI# 2 to make a controlled purchase of cocaine from defendant.   The controlled purchase was executed under watch of police surveillance units, which followed defendant from her residence to the pre-arranged location for the drug sale.   Investigators observed a hand-to-hand transaction between CI# 2 and defendant.   The informant then turned over the purchased cocaine to the investigators.

Police surveillance during the week of March 4, 2009, observed Colon leave his Plainsboro home with a duffel bag and go to defendant's residence.   This activity was consistent with the information provided by the two informants.

During the week of March 8, 2009, another controlled purchase of cocaine was arranged.   Police surveillance units again observed the transaction between CI # 2 and defendant and received the procured cocaine as evidence.   During the week of March 15, 2009, the investigators confirmed with both confidential informants that Colon was still supplying drugs to defendant.   On March 16, 2009, the Prosecutor's investigator applied to a Superior Court judge for search warrants for defendant's residence and person, as well as for Colon's residence, car, and person.

That evening, the police conducted surveillance of defendant's residence.   They saw defendant come out of her apartment and engage in a hand-to-hand transaction with the occupants of a car.   Soon after the transaction, the police moved in to execute their search warrants.   They recovered a set of keys from defendant and used them to enter her apartment.   Before entering, investigators knocked and announced their presence.   Only a small child was in the home.   From defendant's apartment, investigators seized several items, including a digital scale, several glass vials that contained PCP, and several bags of suspected marijuana and cocaine concealed in a toddler's jacket.

On appeal, defendant argues that the search warrants were invalid because the reliability of the informants was not established.   Specifically, defendant contends the supporting affidavit did not provide details of how law enforcement officials worked with the confidential informants in the past, and also did not establish that the informants had narcotics training such that they could identify illegal drugs.   Defendant asserts further that the affiant's statements were ambiguous on the subject of the informants' basis of knowledge.   We find no merit in these arguments.

Information provided by confidential informants may serve as the basis for probable cause when there is “substantial evidence in the record to support the informant's statements.”  Keyes, supra, 184 N.J. at 555 (citing State v. Jones, 179 N.J. 377, 389 (2004)).   In considering the informant's veracity, reliability, and basis of knowledge, the reviewing court takes into account the totality of circumstances shown by the affidavit in support of a search warrant.  Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 230–32, 103 S.Ct. 2317, 2328–29, 76 L. Ed.2d 527, 543–44 (1983);  Jones, supra, 179 N.J. at 389;  State v. Novembrino, 105 N.J. 95, 123 (1987).

The veracity of an informant may be established by showing that the informant has provided accurate information in the past, “such as providing dependable information in previous police investigations.”  Keyes, supra, 184 N.J. at 555 (citing Sullivan, supra, 169 N.J. at 213).   In this case, the investigator's affidavit stated that both CI# 1 and CI# 2 had provided information on narcotics activity to police in the past that resulted in arrests of suspects and seizures of evidence.

An informant's basis of knowledge may be inferentially established if “the nature and details revealed in the tip ․ imply that the informant's knowledge of the alleged criminal activity is derived from a trustworthy source.”   Keyes, supra, 184 N.J. at 556 (quoting State v. Smith, 155 N.J. 83, 94, cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1033, 119 S.Ct. 576, 142 L. Ed.2d 480 (1998)).   Here, the informants' personal knowledge may be inferred from the information about the relationship of the suspects and the details of their illicit activities.

Moreover, independent police corroboration of the informants will establish the reliability of their information even if the search warrant affidavit does not adequately establish their veracity or basis of knowledge.  Ibid. In this case, the police corroborated the information in several ways.   First, similar, consistent information was independently provided by two separate informants.   Second, the Prosecutor's investigator compared the information from his informants with the information gathered earlier by the New Brunswick detective who had conducted an independent investigation of defendant and her drug supplier.   Third, the investigators personally verified details by conducting surveillance of defendant and her drug supplier.   Most important, the investigators arranged for two controlled purchases of cocaine by CI# 2 from defendant.   Defendant was observed engaging in hand-to-hand transactions with the informant, and field tests of the procured substances were positive for cocaine.

Thus, the reliability of the information was corroborated in multiple ways.   Contrary to defendant's assertions, the totality of information provided in the search warrant affidavit clearly established probable cause for the search of defendant's home and person.   The trial court did not err in denying defendant's motion to suppress evidence.

Defendant also argues that the affidavit did not provide a sufficient basis for no-knock entry of the residence.   The requirement that police “knock and announce” their intention to enter is not absolute, and may not be necessary when there is a sufficient countervailing interest to law enforcement.   State v. Johnson, 168 N.J. 608, 616–17 (2001).   To justify a no-knock provision in a search warrant, police must articulate a reasonable, particularized suspicion that no-knock entry is necessary to effectuate an arrest, protect officer safety, or prevent destruction of evidence.  Id. at 619.   Here, the search warrant affidavit clearly articulated the concern for officer safety and preservation of evidence.

In any event, before the warrant was executed, defendant was arrested outside her apartment, and the police used her keys to enter, first knocking and announcing their presence.   Because the police did not make use of the no-knock provision of the warrant, defendant's argument is moot.

Affirmed.

PER CURIAM

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