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Johnson Apartments Company v. Morales

A-4119-08T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2010) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION; DRUGS — An apartment tenant can be found to have constructive control of drugs found in his or her apartment by reason of the location where the drugs are found, the quantity of drugs involved, and the manner in which the drugs are packaged and labeled, even without direct evidence that the tenant is dealing in drugs or whether the tenant even knew that the drugs were in the apartment.

New Jersey’s Anti-Eviction Act makes possession of illicit narcotics grounds for eviction. A disabled woman was a tenant in a private residential complex that received rental subsidiaries under the federally sponsored Section 8 program. Prior to the incident in question, she had not had any incidents with illicit drugs. Police officers approached a man standing outside of the housing complex causing the man to flee, drop packets of heroin on the steps immediately inside the building, and run into the woman’s first floor apartment. “The suspect opened the apartment door without using a key and fled into a bedroom where he was apprehended.” Police “saw in plain view forty glassine envelopes containing what appeared to be heroin.” They were on a coffee table directly in front of the tenant and three to four feet from where she was seated. A total of “360 glassine envelopes of heroin and cocaine” were found on the tenant’s coffee table. The envelopes were marked with the same “trade names” as the envelopes found on the building’s steps. No drugs were found on the tenant or in any other part of her apartment.

The landlord sought to evict the tenant. An informal attempt to reach a resolution pursuant to guidelines promulgated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development was unsuccessful. A summary eviction proceeding followed wherein the landlord, as grounds for the eviction, recited the police’s finding the drugs in the tenant’s apartment. The tenant’s daughter, “who had visited her mother on the day [the] incident occurred,” testified that her mother did not have a coffee table in her living room. She indicated that she never knew of her mother using or being involved with illicit drugs. The Court evicted the woman, basically on the grounds set forth in the Anti-Eviction Act. In doing so, it relied on a United States Supreme Court case where “a party unsuccessfully challenged HUD regulations that permitted public housing authorities to terminate a tenant’s lease for any drug-related criminal activity that occurs on or near the leased premises, whether the activity was engaged in by the tenant, any member of the household, a guest, or anyone under the tenant’s control.”

The woman appealed, arguing that the lower court misapplied the strict liability standard when it “found that she had control of the drugs merely because she had control of the apartment.” The Appellate Division ruled against her. In doing so, it found that she had “constructive control of the drugs found in her apartment” by reason of “(1) the location where the drugs were found; (2) the quantity of drugs involved; and (3) the manner of how the drugs were packaged and labeled.” These “circumstances permit a reasonable inference [she had] knowledge of its presence, and intend[ed] and [had] the capacity to exercise physical control or dominion over [the drugs] during a span of time.”

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