The Officer Must Be Lawfully Present for the Plain View Exception to a Warrant Requirement:

State v. Williams

Appellate Docket No.: A-40

Decided November 2, 2020

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

In a recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision,  the Court, without issuing a written opinion, affirmed a published Appellate Court decision overturning a denial of a motion to suppress when an officer saw weed in a boarding house dwelling, with common areas not accessible to the public.

In State v. Williams, a detective for the State Police heard gunshots from a nearby neighborhood while in his office at Trenton.  Dispatch reported gunshots fired at a nearby bar and that the suspected shooter was a black male named Louis who had fled to and lived in a dwelling on Spring Street.

Upon arrival, police were uncertain whether the address was a single family, multifamily, or boarding house.  When the detective knocked at the door, it opened.  Upon entry there were multiple doors with locks indicating that it was most likely boarding houses.

The officers searched for weapons in the common area.  Finding nothing, officers then began to knock at doors.  Upon knocking at defendant’s door on the 2nd floor, the officer smelled marijuana.  As defendant opened the door the odor grew stronger.  The officer looked around defendant’s room as defendant went to retrieve his wallet. The officer spotted a small bag of marijuana and placed defendant under arrest.  A protective sweep of the room revealed a handgun as well.

Defendant moved to suppress the drugs and weapon found.  The trial court denied defendant’s motion, ruling that the marijuana was in plain view of the officer, giving him lawful access.

Defendant appealed. The Appellate Division ruled that because defendant was in a boarding house, and the common area door, although opening with a knock, was there to provide a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Thus, because the officer needed to be lawfully present for the plain view exception of a warrant requirement to trigger, the Appellate Division found that by entering the boarding house and continuing to search violated defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy, making the officer not lawfully present at the time, and therefore the plain view exception cannot be utilized.

The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress.  The State appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey who affirmed without issuing a written opinion for substantially the same reasons as outlined in the Appellate Division’s opinion.

This case in important to understand the application of the plain view exception to a warrant requirement to conduct a search. Normally, police need to obtain a search warrant to search and seize property from a person’s home or vehicle where they suspect contraband to be present.  The plain view is an exception to this warrant requirement allowing for officers to search and seize property without a warrant if they see contraband out in plain view.  In order to utilize this exception, the officer must be lawfully present.  This means an officer cannot break into your home, see drugs out on the table and utilize the plain view exception. Breaking into the home would make the officer unlawfully present, just as the case was here. A less drastic example, like the case in Williams, is when an officer enters an area where an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as boarding room common areas and individual boarding rooms.

If you or someone you know was in a situation similar to this, contact Hark & Hark today.

At Hark & Hark, we represent clients municipal and superior court for all offenses including first degree, second degree, third degree, fourth degree, disorderly persons, municipal ordinance violations, traffic violations, and DUI / DWI. We vigorously defend our clients by fighting to uphold their constitutional rights, and ensure law enforcement follow proper procedures to legally make an arrest.

We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing criminal charges similar to this circumstance, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Essex, Gloucester, Mercer, Ocean, and Salem counties.

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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