Plain View and Lawful Vantage Points (Part 1)

by | Jan 6, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

State v. Louis V. Williams (A-40-19) (083400) (NOTE: The Court did not write a plenary opinion in this case. The Court affirms the judgment of the Appellate Division substantially for the reasons expressed in Judge Natali’s opinion, published at 461 N.J. Super. 1 (App. Div. 2019).) Argued October 14, 2020 — Decided

On November 2, 2020, the New Jersey Supreme court issued a per curiam opinion in the Mercer County case of State v. Louis V. Williams. A per curiam opinion indicates that no particular judge or justice attached their name to the opinion. This occurs when it is a straightforward application of the law to the facts. Therefore, no judge or justice has reason to conduct an individualized analysis.

The New Jersey Supreme Court relied in large part on Judge Natali, the author of the appellate division opinion in this case and held in relevant part: The Court considers the Appellate Division’s determination that evidence seized from defendant Louis V. Williams’s home should have been suppressed. Detective Estevez of the New Jersey State Police testified at a suppression hearing that, on March 19, 2016, he heard gunshots from a nearby neighborhood while in his office in Trenton. Dispatch reports indicated that the gunshots were fired at a nearby bar and that the suspected shooter was a Black male named “Louis” who had fled to, and lived at, a dwelling on Spring Street.

Estevez and Sergeant Sansone drove to the Spring Street dwelling, where they met a Trenton Police Department officer outside. Estevez testified that the structure appeared to be an attached row home; he was unsure whether it was a single-family home, a multifamily home, or a boarding house. According to Estevez, the front door was equipped with a lock but was unlocked at that time and swung open when he knocked on it. The officers entered 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 searched the common areas for weapons and the suspect. Estevez and Sansone then left the building and returned to their vehicle to search the surrounding area. They received a police dispatch report indicating that a crime scene was established at the bar; Estevez testified that he thus believed he was involved in an “active shooting” investigation. Estevez and Sansone returned to Spring Street and re-entered the dwelling.

The testimony regarding an “active shooting” was likely elicited by the prosecutor at the suppression hearing. It sounds like a factor that the police would attempt to use to justify an exigent circumstance that would excuse the need for a search warrant.