Warrantless home search and CONSENT? | State v. Coles | State v. Lamb

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

Warrantless Search and Consent

Most households in New Jersey are occupied by more than one person who exercise control over the premises, which begs the question of who can grant consent to conduct a warrantless search. Two cases were decided May 19th by the N.J. Supreme Court that both address the validity of evidence gathered from warrantless searches. Generally, a warrant is required in order to conduct a search in compliance with 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and its State counterpart. However, in lieu of a warrant, consent can suffice in order to conduct a search and this is referred to as a ‘warrantless search.’

Consent of an Occupant when Another Occupant Objected

In State v. Lamb the Court addressed whether consent by one occupant of a home can be used to collect evidence against a third party if another occupant has objected. The Supreme Court found that although the Defendant’s mother was assuredly stressed, she was not coerced into giving consent. Furthermore the Court held that an occupant’s consent to a search is constitutional even in light of earlier objections from a co-occupant/father who is missing at the time of subsequent consent by the mother as long as he is absent either of his own accord or because he is lawfully detained or arrested.  The event leading up to the case involved a shooting from a vehicle. The vehicle was found outside the home of the Defendant, and the police knocked on the door and asked permission to enter. The Defendant’s step-father objected to police entering several times, but when he left on his own he was detained for questioning. At this point, the girlfriend of the Defendant informed police that the Defendant was the perpetrator of the alleged crime and was hiding in the house.  The Defendant then left the home willingly and was arrested. When a detective spoke to the Defendant’s mother her persuaded her to give consent for a search to be conducted. The Defendant argued that the objection of his step-father should have precluded his mother from being able to grant consent to a search, and additionally that her consent was granted out of coercion. But there is an exception to this if the potential defendant is present and then objects.

Consent by an Occupant but Other Occupant not Present

But what if an occupant consented to a search warrant while the potential defendant was unlawfully detained AND OR easily accessible so as to obtain consent? This question was resolved in State v. Coles when the Appellate Division found that the Defendant’s aunt did not have common authority over his bedroom especially considering that the Defendant was nearby such that his consent could easily have been obtained. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed. Factually, in 2009 Camden police questioned a man who fit the description of a robbery perpetrator and was near the location of the crime. But, when the victim came to identify him they were unable to confirm or deny that he was the robber. The Supreme Court found that the detention became illegal at the point where the victim could not identify the Defendant. However police continued to detain him and asked his aunt who lived at his same address for consent to search the home. In the bedroom, several weapons were found and weapons-related charges followed. The Defendant moved to suppress evidence but the trial court denied.

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