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Warrantless Search by Police Limited on “Reasonable Suspicion.”

Posted on May 24, 2010

On May 21, 2010, the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that police cannot enter and search a private residence with only a "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity (the standard under Terry v. Ohio , a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case).  In the case of State v. Jefferson , police officers were investigating drug dealing and possible gun-play, which led them to a private residence where they saw the defendant inside. Although they remained outside, the police quickly developed sufficient suspicion to detain the defendant for questioning, and made a warrantless entry into his home.  While this was going on, the defendant resisted the police, was arrested and searched.  During this search, the police found drugs.  However, after securing the defendant, the police re-entered the residence without a warrant and discovered additional criminal evidence.

The Court ruled that although the initially discovered drugs were admissible, because they were found during a search incident to a lawful arrest, it suppressed the evidence later discovered in the home.  This line of distinction drawn by the court is not an unusual one.  Police have long been able to search suspects  placed under arrest for such reasons as to be sure that they are not carrying weapons.  In a traffic stop, the search can go beyond the person of the defendant to the car, if certain areas of the vehicle were within his or her reach.   Also, if the car is impounded, many times an inventory of its contents by the police will reveal criminal evidence. However, in this case the police had no constitutional justification to enter the defendant's residence without a warrant after the arrest.  At the very least, they could have taken the defendant into custody, then come back later with a warrant, if they had sufficient probable cause.   They did not.  Thus the evidence was suppressed.

Steven J. Richardson
Bankruptcy, Collections, Student Loan, DUI and Traffic Court attorney in Woodbury, NJ.