Detention At Arrest Location For 6 Minutes Held Reasonable!

State v. Antoine D. Watts (A-21-14) (074556) Argued September 17, 2015 — Decided December 2, 2015

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Defense Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

New Jersey Supreme Court decision:

The issue in this case is whether the second search of a defendant for 6 minutes after he was initially detained on a street corner was unreasonable and illegal under either New Jersey or the Federal Constitution.  The officer testified he was not going to do a full pat down arrest search of the defendant on the street corner, and he was going to search him further at a later time.  It was during the pendency of that time period, detained and arrested but not put into the police cruiser, nevertheless, 4 bundles of heroin fell out of his pants leg.  At that time he was searched again pursuant to a warrant they possessed for the “search of the defendant and his home”!

Factually:  On March 14, 2012, Detective Guillermo Valladares of the Elizabeth Police Department, believing that defendant was selling heroin from apartment number four at 224 Third Street, obtained a warrant to search defendant and his apartment. On that day, Detective Valladares and other officers set up a surveillance camera near defendant’s apartment and waited for defendant to leave his apartment. Shortly before 5:00 p.m., defendant was seen leaving his apartment. He began walking southward on Third Street and entered Seaport Liquor Store on the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Third Street, located one and one-half blocks from his apartment. Upon exiting the liquor store, defendant was detained and patted down for weapons. One detective removed the apartment keys from defendant’s pocket. The police decided not to conduct an “overly intrusive” search for drugs on the corner of Third Street, which was a busy thoroughfare of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. In Detective Valladares’s view, such a search on a public street would have been “undignified.”

Detective Valladares and another detective returned to the apartment with the keys and made a peaceable entry. The search of defendant’s apartment uncovered no drugs or related paraphernalia. In the meantime, defendant was handcuffed for officer safety and transported back to his apartment in an unmarked police vehicle. Upon arriving in front of the apartment, defendant exited the vehicle. As he walked toward a marked patrol car under police escort, defendant shook his leg, and from his pants fell four bundles of heroin. Six minutes had elapsed from the moment of defendant’s detention to the discovery of the drugs.

Defendant moved to suppress the drugs, claiming that the police were forbidden from detaining him to conduct a second search of his person after the pat down on the street. After a hearing, in an oral opinion, the trial court granted defendant’s motion, concluding that after the initial search failed to uncover contraband, the continued detention of defendant in handcuffs in the hope of finding drugs on him violated the Constitution. The court’s position was that the police had one shot to conduct the search correctly. The court held that the contraband later found by police during defendant’s detention violated his constitutional rights and the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Bailey v. United States, __ U.S. __ , 133 S. Ct. 1031, 185 L. Ed. 2d 19 (2013).

The Appellate Division granted the State’s motion for leave to appeal and affirmed the trial court in an unpublished opinion. After the initial search did not uncover contraband, the appellate panel — like the trial court — discerned “no satisfactory explanation” for the need for a second search. It maintained that once the police exhausted the warrant authorizing the search of defendant’s person outside the liquor store, the search warrant for the residence did not permit a later warrantless search of defendant in accordance with Bailey. According to the panel, none of the Bailey factors justified a warrantless search of defendant: defendant was not armed and thus not a danger to the officers searching the apartment; he was not in a position to hide or destroy evidence in the apartment; and, last, because no contraband was found on defendant’s person or later in his apartment, law enforcement’s interest in preventing flight was not an issue. The panel noted that the “terms of the search warrant” permitted “a search rather than multiple searches.”

The Supreme Court granted the State’s motion for leave to appeal.

HELD: The police did not act in an objectively unreasonable manner in violation of the Federal and State Constitutions by conducting an initial pat-down of defendant and detaining defendant for a thorough search in a more controlled, safe, and secure location.

  1. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution protect against “unreasonable searches and seizures” by government officials. Our constitutional jurisprudence expresses a decided preference that government officials first secure a warrant before conducting a search of a home or a person. A warrant for the search of a person carries with it implicit authority to detain that person for a reasonable period to complete the objective of the search. The period of the detention, however, must directly correspond to the purpose of the search and may not extend beyond that time. Reason suggests that a place where a person is detained pursuant to a search warrant may not always be suitable for conducting an intrusive search. A public street corner may not be the appropriate place to conduct a search for drugs that may be hidden in a person’s clothes or on his body. In such a scenario, neither the Federal nor State Constitution forbids the police from moving the individual to a secure and private setting where the search can be conducted without exposing the person to public degradation and the police to potential dangers. Carrying out an intrusive search on a crowded street corner might be misunderstood by uninformed members of the public, or the person’s friends or family, and spark a combustible incident. Public safety permits the police to take reasonable, commonsense measures to avoid interference with a search. (pp. 10-14)
  2. The police made an objectively reasonable decision that compelling defendant to disrobe, partially or completely on a busy Elizabeth street corner where there was pedestrian and vehicular traffic could cause public humiliation to defendant. Such an intrusive search at that location might also have posed potential dangers to the police. The trial court ruled that the police had one of two choices: search defendant where he was detained or return him to the apartment or some other location and search him there. The court did not allow for a more nuanced approach consistent with constitutional jurisprudence and the notion of reasonableness. The Court rejects, as a matter of law, the trial court’s all-or-nothing approach. To be sure, what occurred on the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Third Street constituted a search under both the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State Constitution. But it was an incidental search preliminary to fulfilling the main objective of the warrant — a search of defendant for the presence of drugs and related paraphernalia. The limited search outside the liquor store did not trigger a constitutional requirement that the police conduct an intrusive search at the same location. The police did not act unreasonably by delaying completion of the search and returning defendant to the apartment. Only six minutes passed from defendant’s detention until discovery of the drugs. That was not an unreasonable period to hold defendant for the purpose of completing the search of his person. To the extent a search occurred, it was not a second search but the reasonable continuation of a search that had not been completed outside the liquor store. (pp. 14-19)
  3. Because defendant was lawfully detained pursuant to a warrant to search his person when the drugs were discovered, the Court need not reach the issue addressed in Bailey, supra. Unlike the present case, in Bailey, the police had a warrant to search only the residence, not the defendant-occupant. Bailey does not apply to a case involving a search warrant for a person. Therefore, the discussions of Bailey by the trial court and Appellate Division were not necessary to decide the suppression motion. (pp. 19-20)

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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