Police Still Need Warrant After Landlord’s Search

     TRENTON (CN) – A New Jersey man indicted on drug and weapons offenses, including the possession of armor-piercing bullets, secured a state Supreme Court reversal Tuesday over a warrantless apartment search.
     The charges stem from the 2009 search of a two-family home in Asbury Park after the landlord entered his tenant’s apartment when no one was home.
     Evangeline James had known her landlord was coming with a plumber that day because she had called him the night before to report a leak. She didn’t answer the phone when the landlord called, however, so he let himself in as he had done before.
     The landlord called police when he found a small bag of marijuana and a small box in an open drawer of the nightstand that he suspected contained crack cocaine.
     When the responding officer found the drugs and a scale, he called for backup.
     Six officers were at the scene when James, who lived in the apartment with young children, arrived 15 to 20 minutes later.
     When a narcotics officer spoke with James outside the apartment about the drugs that had been found, James signed a consent-to-search form.
     Investigators ultimately found a handgun loaded with armor-piercing, hollow-point bullets in a black camera bag, plus sandwich bags, measuring cups and baking soda-all used to cut and package cocaine.
     After police arrested James and were leading her away, Ricky Wright, a boyfriend who stayed at the apartment about three or four nights a week, arrived at the apartment.
     He was arrested too and eventually pleaded guilty to the entire indictment when the Monmouth County trial court denied his motion to suppress the evidence.
     Wright got a 15-year sentence, and prosecutors dismissed all charges against James.
     A New Jersey appeals court later affirmed that the search was legal because the officer who arrived at the apartment first merely verified the landlord’s lawful observations.
     The state Supreme Court unanimously reversed on May 19, however, finding that the search violated both the Fourth Amendment and the New Jersey Constitution.
     “A landlord, like any other guest, may tell the police about contraband he or she has observed,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for the court. “And the police, in turn, can use that information to apply for a search warrant. But that course of vents does not create an exception to the warrant requirement.”
     Since the drugs and firearm discovered in James’ apartment were in the bedroom at the back of the apartment, the plain-view doctrine cannot help police who were not in a common area to see the items before entering.
     The court refused to apply precedent involving searches of motel or hotel rooms by managers that led to police searches. “Residents do not … forfeit an expectation of privacy as to the police,” Rabner wrote. “An invitation to a plumber, a dinner guest, or a landlord does not open the door to one’s home to a warrantless search by a police officer.”
     Wright is not in the clear yet, however, because the high court looked only at applying the third-party intervention doctrine to a warrantless search of a home.
     “We therefore remand this case to the trial court to evaluate whether the initial unlawful search tainted the later consensual search,” Rabner wrote.
     Judge Mary Catherine Cuff did not participate in the ruling.
     Courts in other states have wrestled with the question, with some forbidding warrantless police searches after earlier private searches and others allowing them.
     The American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed amicus briefs in support of suppressing the evidence against Wright, lauded the court’s decision.

%d bloggers like this: