The 4th Amendment Protects All of Us but Only From Some of Us

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

State v. Wright, decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court began with a simple call from a tenant to her landlord about a leaking pipe in the kitchen ceiling. The landlord and a plumber followed the source of the leak which ultimately led them to the bedroom. While in the bedroom the plumber noticed marijuana and crack cocaine. He alerted the landlord and the landlord contacted the police. The police arrived, and after getting consent to search later found a scale and gun loaded with hollow point (armor piercing bullets). The tenant’s boyfriend (Wright) arrived during the search and they were both arrested and became co-defendants.

Defendant Wright’s motion to suppress was denied on the grounds that police correctly relied on the third-party intervention doctrine. The Appellate Division affirmed and Supreme Court took the case on certification to decide whether third party doctrine can be applied to a warrantless search of a private residence. Imagine someone hires a private investigator to follow their cheating spouse who has been going on suspicious “work” trips. The PI opens the unlocked door of the unsuspecting spouse’s car and snoops around looking for clues of infidelity. In addition to evidence of cheating they find a loaded gun, 100K in cash, and a bag of cocaine. The PI calls up the scorned spouse and relates what was found. The scorned spouse overwhelmed with revenge tells the PI to turn their lover into the cops. The PI takes the items to the local police station, they test the alleged cocaine and it is real. The unsuspecting spouse is arrested and subsequently files a motion to suppress evidence seized because the PI and police violated his 4th amendment rights. Nope. Fourth Amendment warrant requirements apply only to government agents, not private actors. That’s third-party intervention doctrine, also referred to as private search doctrine. The above example is more dramatic than most but the point is well made in N.J. and federal case law. Consider Burdeau v. McDowell, the U.S. Supreme Court case that established the doctrine, where a PI turned over items found in an office to police, or Walter v. U.S., where a sealed package of films were sent to the wrong recipient by accident and then turned over to police when the individual found they were obscene. Walter reaffirmed the doctrine but found that police could only conduct a warrantless search of the films that had already been searched by the citizen, and could not extend the search beyond that without a warrant.

In the present case the N.J. Supreme Court failed to extend the doctrine to private homes and held that if a landlord relays he has seen something illegal in an apartment the police can use that info to get a warrant but cannot conduct a warrantless search without exigent circumstances. They remanded the case to determine whether the initial illegal search tainted the later search by consent.

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