Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
This blog has discussed exceptions to Fourth Amendment protections on numerous occasions, and the discussion often circles back to exigency. Exigent circumstances sometimes provide a legitimate basis for police to intrude, and at other times unfortunately are used as an excuse to circumvent your rights. It all depends on the situation. The “emergency aid” doctrine is a type of exigent circumstance in which police may have to enter a car or vehicle to respond to an emergency situation.
Such was held to be the case by the N.J. Supreme Court in their July 20th decision of State v. Reece. The case involved a 9-1-1 call where the caller hung-up immediately. Police respond whenever 911 is dialed since an abrupt hang-up could indicate someone in distress but unable to speak or coerced off the phone. Police arrived at the defendant’s home and asked him if an emergency call had been placed. He responded ‘no’ and even showed them his phone history, but dispatch confirmed the call came from his address. The officers did not notice anything unusual from looking into the open door of the home, but they did see a cut on the knuckles of the defendant that indicated he had punched something. When they asked if he was married, he replied yes but began to become irritated. Police became suspicion and asked permission to enter the home, which he denied. When they said they must enter, the defendant began to fight with them and try to prevent them from entering. On appeal the defendant was able to overturn his conviction of obstructing justice because the Appellate Division found the emergency doctrine did not apply here. However his conviction of resisting arrest stood because that occurred after he was told he was under arrest.
Because there was a dissenting judge in the Appellate Division, he was able to appeal his conviction as of right to the N.J. Supreme Court. This did not work out for the defendant because the N.J. Supreme Court found that emergency aid doctrine did apply, and not only upheld his resisting arrest conviction, but reinstated his obstruction of justice conviction. The Supreme Court did not find that a dropped 9-1-1 call automatically triggered the emergency aid doctrine. It noted that there are many innocent, or harmless explanations for a dropped call. However a dropped call does put an officer on alert, and when viewed in the totality of the circumstances, and combined with other indicia of an emergency situation, or in this case someone trying to hide possible crime, then it may allow for emergency aid doctrine to apply.