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To Warrant or Not to Warrant

Fotolia_52956667_M-768x503.jpgIn State v. Wright, Evangeline James and her three children were tenants in a two-family residence. Ricky Wright, Ms. James' boyfriend and the father of her youngest child, stayed at the apartment 3-4 nights per week. One evening water began leaking through the kitchen ceiling, so Ms. James called the landlord. The landlord brought a plumber to the apartment the next day, but no one was home. After calling Ms. James and waiting for a half hour, the landlord let them in, which he had done in the past. The plumber assessed the situation in the kitchen and followed the piping to a back bedroom to check for additional leaks. The plumber saw marijuana on a nightstand in the bedroom and what appeared to be cocaine in an open drawer. The plumber and the landlord then called the police.

When an officer arrived, he walked through the apartment to confirm the observations of the plumber and landlord before calling for backup. The officer also noticed a small scale in the open drawer. A narcotics officer arrived and contacted Ms. James, who came home. The narcotics officer informed Ms. James of what had been found and requested her consent to retrieve the drugs and perform a full search, to which she agreed. The full search uncovered a gun loaded with hollow point bullets, almost 100 bullets in various calibers, and other items commonly used in narcotics distribution. Ms. James and Mr. Wright were arrested and indicted on drug and weapons charges.

After the trial judge refused to suppress the evidence found in the apartment, Mr. Wright pled guilty, and the charges were dropped against Ms. James. Mr. Wright then appealed the suppression issue, which was eventually heard by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Court reversed and remanded the case after determining that the police officer's initial entry into the apartment violated Mr. Wright's Fourth Amendment rights, which guard against warrantless searches.

In coming to this conclusion, the Court examined the third-party intervention or private search doctrine. This doctrine applies in situations where a private actor searches an item (not a home), discovers contraband, and notifies law enforcement or presents the item to them. The police, in turn, replicate the search without first getting a warrant. Since the first search was performed by a private actor, the Fourth Amendment is not implicated so long as the police search does not exceed the scope of the private search. For instance, a private freight carrier damages a package in transit and, while examining the package for damage, discovers narcotics and turns the package over to the police.

The Court declined to extend this doctrine to the search of a home. The Court noted that a private home has greater expectation of privacy, and concluded that inviting a guest, plumber or landlord into your home does not open the door to a warrantless search by police. However, a guest in your home is free to tell the police anything they saw, which the police can use to get a warrant, but the police cannot simply enter your home to verify what they were told.

Cohn Lifland Pearlman Herrmann & Knopf LLP has been serving all of New Jersey quality legal services for over 90 years. If you need quality legal support, contact our firm for a consultation.

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