Blog Post: State v. Alnesha Minitee/State v. Darnell Bland (A-70/71-10)Decided June 14, 2012 __ N.J. __ (June 14, 2012)
Posted by: New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffery Hark
On June 14, 2012, the New Jersey Supreme Court delivered an opinion in State v. Minitee/State v. Brand, in which the Court redefined the standard for exigent circumstances in regards to the vehicle exception to New Jersey’s search warrant requirements. The Court reversed the ruling of the Appellate Division, holding that exigent circumstances can excuse a warrantless search even when that search takes place several hours after the vehicle in question had been recovered and towed to a safe location.
In Minitee, the defendants were convicted for robbery arising out of a string of events that occurred on January 24, 2003. Just after 10:30 p.m. on that date, in Fort Lee, NJ, police officers reported to the KOA spa on an armed robbery call. State v. Minitee, __ N.J. __, A-70-10, Slip. Op. 4 (June 14, 2012). Witnesses indicated to police that red SUV waiting at a traffic light near the spa which they stated contained the armed robbers who had just left. Id. The officer ordered the passengers out of the SUV. Id. Only one of the passengers, a man later identified as defendant Brand, exited the vehicle, dropped a purse and weapon when ordered, and then fled. Id. The officer continued to order the others out of the vehicle rather than chase Brand, but the traffic light changed to green and the SUV drove away. Id.
After the initial officer radioed in an identification of the red SUV, other officers spotted the vehicle and followed it to the end of a dead end street. Upon arriving at the vehicle, police found two women standing next to the vehicle, defendant Minitee and Liakesha Jones. Id. The women told police that they had been carjacked by two black males who had fled on foot. Id. at 5. The officer ordered them to the ground and waited for backup. When backup arrived, officers looked into the open door of the vehicle and saw, in plain view, two rolls of duct tape on the rear passenger seat and floor. Id. Knowing that the robbers had used duct tape to restrain the victims, the officers took Minitee and Jones to police headquarters and had the vehicle towed there as well by an independent towing company. Id.
Several hours passed between the towing of the vehicle and its being searched by the Bureau of Criminal Investigation at police headquarters, and the vehicle was stored in a secure sally port for the intervening period of time. Id. at 6 (The majority opinion states that the search occurred “after some period of time, the exact length of which cannot be determined from the record,” while the dissent frames the same period as “more than three hours”). Investigators searched the van without acquiring a search warrant. Id. at 7. The search of the vehicle produced classified ads from the Star Ledger for massage parlors, which had been marked with either an asterisk, a “no” or “next;” several rolls of duct tape as well as electrical tape, several hats and a mask, a cell phone, handwritten directions, a checkbook in the name of Anthony Herns, and a videotape of a massage parlor robbery from East Brunswick, NJ. Id. at 6.
During the time period between the robbery at 10:30 and the conclusion of the vehicle search at just after 2:00 a.m., multiple pursuits were in progress as police searched for the men who had fled on foot. Id. One of the fleeing men was found and arrested a few miles away in another town, while defendant Bland would not be arrested until months later. Id. at 6-7. Likewise, after his arrest, the Almustafa Baldwin, the fleeing man who had been caught, told police that he had discarded a weapon while fleeing and reneged on a promise to take police to the weapon’s location. As such, Fort Lee Police as well as the police from several neighboring towns, all searched for the weapon through the night. Id. at 7. Testimony also revealed that the Bureau of Criminal Investigation had been required to search several sites during the intervening period including the spa, the area where the gun had allegedly been dropped, another site where a jacket had been dropped by a fleeing robber, and the site where the SUV had been found. Id.
At trial, the judge determined that there were exigent circumstances. As such, the trial court ruled that the warrantless search was proper. On appeal, the Appellate Division held that under State v. Pena-Flores, 198 N.J. 6 (2009), the circumstances were not sufficient to meet the requirements for a proper warrantless search and reversed. The State appealed, arguing that State v. Martin, 87 N.J. 561 (1981) was more analogous to the facts of this case and therefore should control. Id. at 8. Likewise, the state argued that as Pena-Flores announced a new rule, it should not be applied retroactively to actions which occurred in 2003.
The Court, in its analysis, noted that both the Federal and State constitutions guarantee an individual’s right to be secure against unreasonable searches, and that this requirement is so important that warrantless searches are presumed to be invalid. Id. at 11. When such a search is challenged, the State bears the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence that the search fits within the scope of one of the enumerated exceptions. Id. at 12. The Court suggested that there were only two exceptions that could possibly apply here: the search incident to arrest exception and the automobile exception. Id. The Court quickly rejected the search incident to arrest exception, as that only provides the police with the ability to search the area within the immediate grasp of the defendant within which the defendant may grab a weapon or destroy evidence. Id.
Turning to the automobile exception, the Court noted that New jersey does not follow the federal courts in its understanding of the automobile exception. Id. at 13. While federal law requires only that the vehicle be mobile and probably cause exist that the vehicle contains evidence, New Jersey also requires that there be exigent circumstances for the automobile exception to the warrant requirement to apply. Id. The Court noted that the New Jersey Constitution provides greater protections than the U.S. Constitution, and as such the existence of exigent circumstances are an essential element of the exception. Id. at 14.
The Court reiterated that under New Jersey law, the automobile exception requires an unplanned, unforeseen stop; probably cause to believe that the automobile contains contraband or evidence of criminality beyond mere suspicion; and exigent circumstances making it impracticable to obtain a warrant. Id. at 15-16. The Court held that though the factors enumerated in Pena-Flores are illustrative of the sorts of circumstances that could support a finding of exigent circumstances, that list was not exhaustive. Id. at 17. The Appellate Division’s conclusion that the Pena-Flores factors did not support a finding here, then, was not appropriate. Id.
In the instant matter, the Court held that there were other factors, which had not been relevant to Pena-Flores which confronted the Fort Lee Police that made obtaining a warrant impracticable. Specifically, the majority looked to the armed robbery, that two of the perpetrators were on the run and possibly armed, the large multiple-municipality search for the perpetrators, the attempt to find the weapon discarded by Baldwin before an innocent bystander might find it, and the conditions in which the SUV was initially discovered. Id. at 17-18. As the van was found in a dark area on a winter night with poor lighting, and as the van likely held important evidence, the Court argued that the police had no assurances that the fleeing defendants were not in the area with weapons, and as such the decision to tow the vehicle to a safe place would not preclude a finding of exigent circumstances under State v. Martin. Id. 18.
Finding Martin analogous and Pena-Flores easily distinguishable, the Court argued that Martin provided the proper framework for considering this matter. Id. In Martin, the Court had faced a similar situation wherein shortly after an armed robbery, while the perpetrators were at large, police found the vehicle of one of the robbers in a dimly lit area and towed the vehicle to a safe area before searching the vehicle. Id. at 19. The Minitee Court held that just as the towing of the vehicle in Martin was not fatal to the exigent circumstances in that case, nor does the passing of time between the towing of the vehicle and its search in the instant matter. Id. The Court instead held that the circumstances, including the multiple searches, the time of night, the missing weapon, and the multiple demands facing the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, all made the warrantless search of the SUV in this matter reasonable. Id. at 19-20. As only those searches which are objectively unreasonable “run afoul of constitutional principles,” the circumstances in this case are sufficient to meet the requirements of the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. Id. As the search itself was proper, the Court had no need to address the issues of proper standing that the State had argued in regards to defendant Bland. As the search of the SUV met the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, the Court reversed the Appellate Division’s decision and reinstated the convictions of Minitee and Bland.
 The sole dissenting justice, Justice Albin, did not dispute most of the majority’s argument, but instead focused on the three plus hour gap between the recovery of the SUV and its search. As the State, in Justice Albin’s opinion, had to prove that it was impracticable to obtain a warrant and provided no evidence of such, the at least three hour gap should be fatal to a finding of exigent circumstances. Justice Albin otherwise agreed with the majority stating that “I do not doubt that a search of the SUV at the scene or even its immediate search at headquarters, provided that the vehicle was promptly towed, would have fallen within the exigent-circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.” Justice Albin’s opinion at 7.