Constitutionality of the Seizure of Evidence by Law Enforcement
State v. Torres:
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
After the trial court denied his motion to suppress the seizure of the clothing he was wearing when he was taken into custody, defendant pleaded guilty to first degree murder, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3(a) (1) (count one); second-degree disturbing human remains, N.J.S.A. 2C:22-1(a)(1) (count four); and two counts of third-degree fraudulent use of a credit card, N.J.S.A. 2C:21- 6(h) (counts eleven and twelve). He admitted that he killed his stepfather with an axe, wrapped his body in a blanket and plastic bag secured by duct tape, placed the body in the garage of the residence they shared, and used the victim’s credit cards to make purchases. On the day in question, police received a 911 call and detectives responded to a residence, saw an enormous amount of blood and sought to question those with ties to the residence, which included the defendant, the victim’s stepson. Police later found a truck associated with the victim and defendant, who fled. He was captured and brought in for questioning. Detectives thought the defendant’s clothes might have blood on them and subsequently asked him to remove his clothes. The officers bagged the clothes and proceeded to swab the defendant’s hands. The trial court found the “realtime” response from the detective to the fear of evidence being destroyed was not “unreasonable,” but the trial court did not provide a legal analysis for the warrantless search.
The sole issue raised on appeal by the defendant was that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress the evidence seized as a result of the warrantless strip search. It is well settled that police are entitled to conduct a warrantless seizure of a defendant’s outer-clothing pursuant to the search incident to a lawful arrest exception to the warrant requirement. United States v. Edwards, 415 U.S. 800, 806 (1974) (“When it became apparent that the articles of clothing were evidence of the crime for which [the defendant] was being held, the police were entitled to take, examine, and preserve them for use as evidence, just as they are normally permitted to seize evidence of crime when it is lawfully encountered”); According to State v. Mark, 46 N.J. 262, 277 (1966), the taking of the clothing and the examination of the defendant’s trousers for bloodstains were clearly proper police procedures pursuant to the search-incident to a lawful arrest exception and were neither unreasonable nor violative of any of the defendant’s constitutional rights.
The appellate court rejected the defendant’s argument that the police conducted a strip search when they seized his clothes, but found that the trial court should have made proper findings of fact and related those to its conclusions of law. Additionally, the appellate court stated that the trial court did not specify that probable cause for defendant’s arrest existed at the time his clothes were seized. As a result, the appellate court remanded for the trial court to delineate its reasoning as to the inevitable discovery and search incident to arrest exceptions.
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