Emergency Aid Doctrine & Cell Phone Locations | New Jersey vs. Earls

State vs. Earls

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Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

The significant issues in this case is the application of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s prior decision in State vs. Earls.  In that prior decision the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that New Jersey citizens have a right to privacy in their location which can be transmitted via cell phone transponder!  The court ruled in this prior decision that when individuals possess a cell phone they have an expectation that the police will not be able to obtain their location from the cell phone provider unilaterally.  Now, with that foundation, the Appellate Division applied the “Emergency Aid” exception to the warrant requirement to determine in this fact sensitive matter whether there was such an emergency upon which the police could rely in order to contact the cell phone provider and ‘triangulate’ the location of a defendant without first obtaining a warrant.

Ultimately, this court ruled because the girlfriend, upon whom the police had relied to establish the ’emergency aid’ due to a prior domestic violence, was not in fear of her safety, she had not heard form the defendant in a while, was not aware of his whereabouts, and was not in ‘imminent’ fear of her own safety which would intern create emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement.  The appellate division looked to the facts that showed the police had waited an extended period of time, had prepared the arrest complaints, had done numerous other things, and the girl friend was not in fear of immediate harm, to prove the point that there was not emergency and the police merely contrived the argument to sidestep the warrant requirement.

The court ruled: “[B]oth the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution guarantee ‘[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.'”  State v. Baum, 199 N.J. 407, 421 (2009) (quoting U.S. Const. amend. IV and N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 7).  Pursuant to these constitutional provisions, “‘a warrantless search is presumed invalid unless it falls within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement.'”  State v. Wilson, 178 N.J. 7, 12 (2003) (quoting State v. Cooke, 163 N.J. 657, 664 (2000)).  The search warrant requirement “is not lightly to be dispensed with, and the burden is on the State, as the party seeking to validate a warrantless search, to bring it within one of those recognized exceptions.” Ibid.  To satisfy this burden, the State must establish “by a preponderance of the evidence that there was no constitutional violation.”  Id. at 13.

The emergency aid doctrine is a recognized exception to the warrant requirement.  The doctrine applies when “‘exigent circumstances . . . require public safety officials, such as the police, firefighters, or paramedics, to enter a dwelling without a warrant for the purpose of protecting or preserving life, or preventing serious injury.'”  State v. Edmonds, 211 N.J. 117, 130 (2012) (quoting State v. Frankel, 19 N.J. 586, 598, cert. denied, 543 U.S. 876, 125 S. Ct. 108, 160 L. Ed. 2d 128 (2004)). The doctrine now involves a two-part test. Id. at 131-32.

To justify a warrantless search under this exception, the State must establish that “(1) the officer had ‘an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency requires that he provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury'[;] and (2) there was a ‘reasonable nexus between the emergency and the area or places to be searched.'” Id. at 132 (quoting Frankel, supra,  79 N.J. at 600) (emphasis added). Stated differently, “‘if police officers possess an objectively reasonable basis to believe that prompt action is needed to meet an imminent danger, then neither the Fourth Amendment nor Article I, Paragraph 7 demand that the officers delay potential lifesaving measures while critical and precious time is expended obtaining a warrant.'”  State v. Vargas, 213 N.J. 301, 324 (2013) (quoting Edmonds, supra, 211 N.J. at 133). Consistent with the Court’s recent decision in Edmonds, supra, an officer’s subjective motivation for entry into the home or physical structure is no longer considered in this analysis. 211 N.J. at 131-33; contra N.J.S.A. 2A:156A-29(c)(4) (providing an exception to the statutory requirement for a court order for cell-site information when a “law enforcement agency believes in good faith that an emergency involving danger of death or serious bodily injury to the subscriber or customer” exists) (emphasis added).

Critically, the officers here were not responding to an open-line 9-1-1 call, which “by its very nature, may fairly be considered . . . a presumptive emergency, requiring an immediate response.” Frankel, supra, 179 N.J. at 604. Nor had they personally witnessed any indicia of an emergency, unlike the police officers in Michigan v. Fisher, 558 U.S. 45, 130 S. Ct. 546, 175 L. Ed. 2d 410 (2009), who, while responding to a disturbance complaint, observed broken windows, “blood on the hood of” a smashed pick-up truck in the driveway and the defendant “screaming and throwing things” inside the house with a cut on his hand. Id. at 45-46, 130 S. Ct. at 547, 175 L. Ed. 2d at 412. Indeed, Butler never initiated any contact with the police, but instead voiced her concerns over Gates’s safety only after the detectives, in pursuing their investigation into the residential burglaries, confronted her the next day after searching the storage shed, inquiring into the whereabouts of defendant.

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