Obstruction of Justice conduct, Community – Caretaking job of the police and their intersection on a domestic violence call be the police

State v. Andrew J. Fede Decided March 12, 2019

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

In this appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the appellate division decision and addresses head on whether defendant Andrew J. Fede violated the criminal obstruction of the administration of justice statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a), when he refused to remove the chain lock from the door to his apartment/home and allow warrantless entry by police officers who were responding to a report of potential domestic violence.  The police alleged they were called to the scene from a domestic violence call and were performing their ‘community care-taking’ function.  The Supreme court found that this was an ’emergency aid’ call as opposed to a community care taking type of call because of the concern for the health safety and wellbeing of the occupants, however this defendant never performed an affirmative action of denying the police the ability to effectuate their job, because the chain had already been on the door. Here are the facts:

In March 2014, two police officers were dispatched to a multi-family building in response to a call reporting a potential domestic violence situation. Patrol Officer Zoklu and Sergeant Becker of the Cliffside Park Police Department knocked on the door of defendant’s apartment. Defendant partially opened the door, which was secured with a chain lock.

The officers identified themselves, told defendant they were investigating a domestic disturbance, and sought entry into his home to check on the well-being of the occupants. The officers learned that defendant lived with Stephanie Santiago. Defendant explained that she was away in South Carolina and he was alone in the apartment.

As the conversation continued, the situation became more contentious. Defendant asked if they had a warrant. The officers explained they were acting under the community-caretaking doctrine and were permitted to enter his home without a warrant to ensure the welfare of the occupants. Defendant demanded a warrant. He remained by the door in view of the officers, refusing to unchain his lock. In an effort to defuse the situation, the officers gave defendant the telephone number of their supervisor. Fede spoke to the supervisor, who confirmed the officers’ reason for seeking entry. The officers were unable to convince Fede to unchain his door.

Concerned about the possibility of domestic violence, the officers broke the chain lock on Fede’s door and entered his apartment. The entry was uneventful, and after being instructed to move into the building’s hallway, Fede stepped outside of his apartment and stood next to Zoklu as other officers searched the home. The search confirmed that defendant was alone in the apartment. The officers thereafter placed Fede under arrest for obstruction of the administration of the law under N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a) for failing to remove the chain lock from his door.

A bench trial was held in the Cliffside Park Municipal Court. The trial court found the officers had an objectively reasonable basis to enter Fede’s apartment given the report of domestic violence and that Fede had a legal obligation to admit officers into his home. The court found Fede’s refusal to unchain his lock so the officers could enter an obstacle for purposes of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a).

On Fede’s first appeal, a Law Division judge affirmed defendant’s conviction, concluding that because defendant had “purposely prevented” officers from gaining entry into his home by “refusing to unchain his door,” he “creat[ed] an obstacle, which prevented the police from performing their official function.” On further appeal to the Appellate Division, the panel affirmed the Law Division’s holding, additionally relying on State v. Reece, 222 N.J. 154 (2015).

The Court granted Fede’s petition for certification. 232 N.J. 412 (2018).

HELD: The Court stresses that the police officers had the right to enter defendant’s home under the emergency-aid doctrine, which permits warrantless entry under circumstances like those presented in this case. Because defendant’s refusal to remove the door chain did not constitute an affirmative interference for purposes of obstructing justice within the meaning of the obstruction statute, the Court reverses the judgment of the Appellate Division and vacates defendant’s conviction.

  1. As a preliminary matter, the Court considers the appropriateness of the officers’ actions in breaking the door’s chain lock. Among their extensive duties, police officers serve a vital community-caretaking role. In this role, they are given the latitude to make warrantless entry into a home under the emergency-aid exception to the warrant requirement. Where, as here, a report of domestic violence provides the police with an objectively reasonable basis to believe an emergency exists inside the home, a warrantless search is permitted for the limited purpose of ensuring the welfare of the occupants in the home. The police officers at the heart of this matter acted properly and professionally under the emergency-aid doctrine in breaking the chain lock to enter defendant’s apartment in order to ascertain the validity of reported allegations of domestic violence within the apartment.
  2. Charging defendant with obstruction for refusing to unchain the door lock, however, is a different matter. The police’s having the right to enter Fede’s home does not lead to the conclusion that Fede’s refusal to remove the chain from the lock on his door constituted obstruction within the meaning of the criminal obstruction statute.
  3. To violate N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a), a person must not only “purposely obstruct[], impair[] or pervert[] the administration of law” but must do so through one of the specifically enumerated acts in the statute, through “physical interference or obstacle,” or through an “independently unlawful act.” In its second sentence, the statute specifically distinguishes the above behaviors from failures to perform non-official duties and other conduct. The statute is unambiguous. It defines the explicit means by which one may be criminally liable for obstruction and requires affirmative interference. Otherwise, the outer contours of the statute would be difficult to limit. For example, a defendant could be convicted of obstruction for sitting on his couch and declining to respond to the police officer’s knock. Commentary from the Model Penal Code supports the requirement of an affirmative act. To find criminal liability under N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1 requires an affirmative act or some affirmative interference.  
  4. Fede’s refusal to remove the already-fastened chain lock required no physical effort; it was not an act. It would be both counterintuitive and contrary to the plain meaning of the term “affirmative,” which requires effort, to find that defendant affirmatively interfered with the police by failing to remove an already-fastened chain lock from his door. In Reece, officers responded after receiving a dropped 9-1-1 call originating from Reece’s home. 222 N.J. at 158. Once the Court established that the officers’ warrantless entry was lawful, it concluded that the defendant’s attempt to slam and lock the door on the officers to prevent them from performing their official function constituted obstruction. Id. at 172. Specifically, the Court found that Reece attempted to prevent the officers’ entry “by means of . . . physical interference or obstacle.” Ibid. (quoting N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a)). Here, Fede did not undertake an affirmative act. His use of the ordinary door-chain-lock was his standard practice, not a circumstantial reaction to the officers’ knock. As the testimony revealed, Fede did not try to prevent the officers from breaking the chain, offering no physical resistance once the officers broke the chain and entered. Indeed, he complied with instructions to wait outside his home while the search was conducted. Although his refusal to remove the lock to allow the officers to perform their necessary, lawful, and focused search is not an advisable course of action and could have escalated the situation, it was not criminal. There was thus no factual basis for Fede’s obstruction conviction under the circumstances of this case.

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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