Emergency Circumstances Can Create an Exception to Warrants, Probable Cause, and Plain View
Appellate Docket No.: A-4139, 5085, 5677-17T3
Decided December 15, 2020
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division of New Jersey reviewed a trial court’s denial of a motion to suppress where police entered a home and a hotel room investigating a shooting and using emergency circumstances of finding blood to do so without a warrant.
In State v. Shaquille, Detective Alfonso Colon received a telephone call from an anonymous citizen, who reported hearing multiple shots fired in a home on Bond Street. The caller reported seeing two or three individuals carrying another person out of the house. The citizen also saw a man and a woman taking duffel bags or suitcases from the house and placing them in a shed. About ten or fifteen minutes later, the citizen called Detective Colon a second time. She told the detective a cab had come to the house on Bond Street and a man and woman carrying large bags got into it and left the premises. Police learned the taxi cab took the man and woman to a motel on Route1 and 9, then Spring Lane Motel.
Officers investigated the home on Bond Street. They found a large amount of blood on the bottom panel of the screen door. The police knocked, announced their presence, and entered the home. The police did not locate any victims or other individuals in the home, but found blood on the kitchen floor and on the last step before the second-floor landing.
After looking at security footage of the motel and realizing the man and woman may have been present at the shooting, police went to search the motel. A woman answered the door, police arrested her and upon a protective sweep of the motel the officers found a rifle. The rifle was later connected to a shooting that took place in 2014, where robbers killed one victim and wounded another.
Defendants moved to suppress the rifle. The trial judge, in a comprehensive 40 page opinion, denied the motion to suppress. The trial judge found that the police search of the Bond Street home was based on emergency exigent circumstances, as they believed someone was injured in a shooting and there was blood on the exterior screen door. Upon entering, the police found more blood, leading them to believe the victim and the shooter were still out in public. Police moved their search to the motel, arresting the woman seen on the security footage and performing an appropriate protective search for people hiding, finding the rifle.
The defendants appealed, but Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s opinion with little comment, noting that the trial judge’s decision was accurately based in law.
This case is important to understand a few concepts present regarding police warrantless searches. The first is the emergency circumstances in which officers can search without a warrant if they reasonably believe there is an emergency in which they need to perform community caretaking functions to save life. The warrantless search can only go as long as the emergency exists, and the police cannot go outside the bounds of searching for the emergency – for instance searching in small drawers when looking for a person. In this case the blood on the door allowed police to continue the search into the home without a warrant, leading to finding more blood and extending the search to the motel room.
Next, the police performed a protective search after arresting the woman who answered the door. Police were permitted for entering the room and arresting the woman on the emergency circumstances and probable cause from identifying the woman on the surveillance footage and eye witness accounts. Thereafter, a protective sweep of the room was performed as an incident of arrest, and to find out if more people were hiding in the room. The police were able to locate the rifle that was in plain view, another exception to the warrant requirement. So long as police are lawfully present, they find the contraband unintentionally, and the contraband is in the immediate vicinity, police do not need a warrant to seize the evidence.
This case is important to understand that an officer’s observations and testimony are usually critical in criminal matters. For arrests, searches and seizures, officers are trained and have experience in a variety of areas. This training and experience is recognized by the courts and is often used to bolster officer testimony. In order to properly defend against such accusations, it is important to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney trained in questioning police officers and exposing weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case.
At Hark & Hark, we represent clients in Superior Court for criminal matters like the present case involving motions to suppress. We vigorously defend our clients by fighting to uphold their constitutional rights, and ensure law enforcement follow proper procedures to legally make an arrest.
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