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New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney Blog Covering New Jersey and Federal Criminal Law and Procedure

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

While investigating a noise complaint at an apartment complex, an officer observed James Legette standing on a common porch.  The officer approached and Legette partially opened a door leading into his area.  The officer then smelled burnt marijuana, entered the porch area, and identified himself as an officer.  As Legette began to walk away, the officer requested identification.  Legette responded that he had to retrieve his identification from the apartment, and the officer replied that he would have to accompany him.  Legette entered the apartment and the officer followed.  The officer noticed a bulge in Legette’s sweatshirt.

After entering the apartment, Legette presented his identification and the officer radioed a request to check for outstanding arrest warrants.  Legette them removed his sweatshirt and asked a woman who was in the apartment to place it in the bedroom.  The officer then seized the sweatshirt from the bedroom and took Legette, who appeared anxious, outside.  Obviously, the officer did not have a search warrant.

The arrest warrant check was negative, and Legette did not consent to a search of the sweatshirt.  The officer had a police dog sniff the sweatshirt.  A “metallic” noise could be heard when the dog moved the sweatshirt.  The officer then discovered a loaded handgun in the sweatshirt. Continue reading

State v. Bryant, a recent search and seizure case, discusses the factual predicate necessary to justify a protective sweep of a home.

Officers went to defendant’s home in response to a domestic violence report.  A woman had called the police, stated that she had been assaulted there, and was now outside in her car.  The woman did not provide her name or the identity of her attacker, but did provide the police with an address.  Having only this limited information, the first two officers to arrive at the home knocked on the door, entered, and told defendant to sit on a couch.  One officer questioned the defendant while the other conducted a protective sweep of the apartment, searching any area where a person may hide.

During the protective sweep, the officer saw what he thought was marijuana sticking out of a box in a closet.  The officer seized it, the defendant was arrested and removed from the premises, and a search warrant was requested and received.  The officers then discovered 55 grams of marijuana, packaging material and an assault weapon.  The defendant was charged with possession of CDS, Possession of CDS with intent to distribute, possession of an assault firearm, and possession of a weapon by a person with a prior indictable conviction. Continue reading

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as well as the analogous provisions of New Jersey state law, set rules concerning the manner in which officers can search a person, and/or their home, office or vehicle.  This body of law plays a central role in maintaining personal liberty and privacy, and impacts upon the rights and freedoms of every citizen.  However, at least one sitting US Supreme Court Justice (Breyer?) has noted that our Fourth Amendment case law is in “disarray”, or words to that effect.  This stems, at least in part, from the fact that these cases arise in a wide array of scenarios, and are very fact-sensitive.  This creates opportunities for widely divergent interpretations of facts and related applications of law, with the result that existing search and seizure case law is frequently unclear.  Indeed, this area of law demonstrates plainly and numerous individuals can have different views and opinions of the same plot line, and therefore reach different legal conclusions and results.  The New Jersey Supreme Court recently decided State v. Bivins.  This case, which is somewhat refreshing in its clarity, helps to define the limits of search and seizure activities in drug cases where the search is conducted pursuant to an “all-persons-present” search warrant.

In Bivins, the police obtained a no-knock warrant to search a residence believed to be involved in drug trafficking for narcotics and related contraband.  The terms of the warrant allowed the police to search the residence, and “all persons present reasonably believed to be connected to said property and investigation.”  The affidavit supporting the warrant stated, among other things, that the residence was “open for the sale of narcotics twenty-four (24) hours a day, seven (7) days a week.”  One of the state troopers involved in the execution of the warrant asserted that people were “in and out of the house at all times” and there may have been “a lot more occupants in there than [those] seen.”

This trooper also testified that when the police were entering the residence, he learned that two individuals had departed and were heading toward a grey Pontiac.  The trooper approached his designated location and saw a grey Pontiac approximately five or six houses down the block from the target residence.  The trooper also observed two individuals in the car, who were later identified as defendant Bivins and his cousin.  Significantly, the trooper did not personally observe Bivins or his cousin leave the residence and enter the Pontiac.  Bivins and his cousin were removed from the vehicle and searched, and each had 35 bags of cocaine. Continue reading

Every participant in a jury trial has a defined role.  The judge manages the trial and acts as a judge of the law.  S/he will rule on legal issues that arise during pre-trial proceedings, supervise jury selection, rule on issues of law that arise during trial, instruct the jury on the applicable law, and then supervise jury deliberations.  The State and defendant each have their own lawyers who present evidence, challenge and test the evidence of their opponent, and generally advocate their client’s position.  The jury is the judge of the facts.  It listens to the evidence presented in the courtroom during the trial subject to the judge’s legal rulings, and determines whether or not the facts of the case – as presented in accordance with our rules of procedure and evidence – supports each element of each criminal charge that the State has brought against the defendant.  Thus, the jury is the fact-finder.  Its job is to determine the facts of the case.  In a pair of recently decided cases, our Supreme Court re-affirmed that fact-finding is the jury’s province, and that interfering with this function runs roughshod over fundamental principles of our trial process.

In Cain, Hackensack police detectives were conducting a surveillance of defendant’s home.  The detectives, who were in an unmarked vehicle, allegedly observed a hand-to-hand exchange between defendant and another individual on the porch.  They then followed the individual who, upon realizing that he was being followed, dropped an object on the ground.  The detectives retrieved the object, which was found to be crack cocaine.  Several days later, an officer observed another transaction between defendant and one or more individuals in front of defendant’s house, and later recovered two envelopes of heroin.  Testimony indicated that the heroin was purchased from the defendant.  The officers obtained a search warrant for defendant’s house, and recovered cocaine, heroin, a digital scale and baggies.

Like Cain, the facts in Simms were straight-forward and relatively easy to decipher.  Atlantic City detectives conducting a surveillance near a housing project observed a silver car park near a curb.  The driver reclined his seat so that he could not be easily observed, but raised his head periodically to look around.  A red car then parked in front of the silver car.  The driver of the red car approached the silver car and handed an object to the driver of the silver car in exchanged for what was believed to be US currency.  A detective saw the driver of the red car, the defendant, lean into the silver car and then walk away, but did not actually see an exchange.  The detectives did, however, see the defendant place “something” in his back pocket.  Following his arrest, the detectives approached the silver car and observed a bundle of heroin on the back passenger seat, which was later found to have the logo “Sweet Dreams”.  Another detective then approached the red car and saw the passenger stuffing something down the rear of her pants, which was later found to be bags of heroin stamped with the same logo. Continue reading

Clients often attempt to articulate facts substantiating a violation of their constitutional rights.  Sometimes, the client’s description of the relevant facts can be used to at least articulate a legal basis for such a violation.  More frequently, however, the client’s description bears little, if any, relation to a constitutional violation.  What quickly becomes obvious is that most clients (indeed, most people) cannot identify their basic constitutional rights.  Non-lawyers may have vague notions of the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures or the right against self-incrimination, but these are only two of many constitutional rights that we all have.  Further, most people are also unaware that the federal Constitution is only one source of such rights.  State constitutions, including New Jersey’s, may guarantee different constitutional rights, or different (higher) levels of protections relative to their federal analogs.

The recently decided New Jersey Supreme Court decision of State v. Bass contains an extensive discussion of one of our most fundamental constitutional rights, which is the right to confrontation.  Simply put, a criminal defendant has the right to confront and cross-examine the witness(es) against them.  Justice Patterson’s unanimous opinion discusses different permutations of that right and also demonstrates that, where necessary, New Jersey will depart from federal law to chart its own course in this important arena.

After an evening of drugs, cross-dressing and, presumably, sexual activity, in a Neptune Township motel room, defendant David Bass shot and killed Jessica Shabazz, and shot and wounded James Sinclair.  Defendant, Shabazz and Sinclair were the only individuals present when the relevant events occurred.  Sinclair, who had a long criminal history, was the State’s lead witness at trial. Continue reading

On July 2, 2009, at 11:30 pm, a car pulled up next to a woman who was walking to her home in Jersey City.  The passenger got out, approached her, tapped her hip with a gun, and asked for her phone.  The woman surrendered her purse which contained her phone and other valuable items.  She ran to a police station to report the crime.  While there, a patrol unit had stopped a car matching the description she gave police.  She was driven to the scene to view the car and the two occupants, but said that neither was the robber.  A few hours later, officers spotted another car matching the description of a car involved in several robberies in Jersey City that night.  The police stopped the car and discovered three individuals inside.  The occupants gave conflicting stories when questioned, and were taken to the police station and photographed.

Three days later, a detective asked the victim to come to the station to attempt to try to identify the robber from photobooks.  The photos of two of the three individuals removed from the second car, including that of the defendant, were placed in the photobooks before the victim saw them.  The victim selected defendant’s photo, saying that she was “pretty positive” he had robbed her.  The victim also viewed the vehicle, and said that it “looked like” the car from the robbery.  Based on this, defendant was arrested.

Six weeks after the robbery, the police arrested Stebbin Drew, who resembled the defendant, and found the victim’s cell phone in his possession.  A State Trooper called the victim in August to tell her this.  The victim told the assistant prosecutor about this call more than one year later during jury selection in defendant’s trial.  The assistant prosecutor told defense counsel about the call on the morning of the second day of trial.  The State called the victim as its first witness and, during cross-examination, defense counsel asked the victim about the Trooper’s call.  Counsel then moved for a mistrial, asserting that he had been denied exculpatory information.  The trial judge denied the motion.  During a subsequent discussion about a State Police report that the prosecutor’s office had located which noted that Drew possessed the victim’s cell phone when he was arrested, defense counsel renewed his motion for a mistrial.  The trial court again denied the motion.  The victim viewed Drew’s arrest photo during further testimony, and stated that he was not the robber.  The jury convicted defendant of, among other things, armed robbery, and the trial court imposed a 20-year term with an 85% parole disqualifier subject to the No-Early-Release Act. Continue reading

Many defendants convicted in State court proceedings will, after exhausting their State level appeals and post-conviction applications, seek habeas relief in Federal court.  Generally speaking, the process focuses upon violations of Federal constitutional law in the underlying State proceedings, and is commenced by filing a habeas petition and supporting papers in the appropriate Federal district court within the applicable limitations period.  Habeas is often the final opportunity to attack a State court conviction.  These applications frequently, but do not always, stem from allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel.  For many years, the US Supreme Court has issued decisions restricting the availability of habeas relief to a State defendant.  The latest case to do so is White v. Wheeler, No. 14-1372, decided on December 14, 2015.

A capital jury convicted defendant Wheeler of killing two individuals.  The habeas petition arose from a claim that a judge improperly struck a prospective juror for cause during the selection process.  The prosecutor moved to strike the juror for cause because his responses during voir dire indicated that he was not absolutely certain he could realistically consider the death penalty.  The defense opposed the motion, arguing that the prospective juror’s responses indicated that he could consider all penalty options, regardless of any reservations he may have had about the death penalty.  The trial judge struck the juror for cause because his inconsistent answers suggested that he could not consider the death penalty as part of the entire range of sentencing options.

The district court dismissed the petition, but the Sixth Circuit reversed and granted habeas relief as to defendant’s sentence.  That Court found that excusing the prospective juror violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Federal Constitution.  The US Supreme Court reversed, and its basis for doing so is clearly, unmistakably and repeatedly stated throughout the opinion. Continue reading

Maryland v. Kulbicki, No. 14-848 (2015), a recent US Supreme Court decision, helps to further define the concept of ineffective assistance of counsel for purposes of Sixth Amendment claims.  The case is important for anyone considering a motion for post-conviction relief in State court or a habeas petition in Federal court based upon an argument that their attorney did not perform properly.

In 1993, Kulbicki shot his paramour in the head at close range.  His trial commenced in Maryland state court in 1995.  The prosecutor called an FBI agent as an expert witness to testify on the subject of Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis (“CBLA”).  At the time of trial, CBLA was accepted by the relevant scientific community as valid.  The expert testified that the composition of elements in the molten lead of a bullet fragment located in Kulbicki’s truck matched the composition of lead in a bullet fragment removed from the victim’s brain, and that one would expect to find such a similarity when examining two pieces of the same bullet.  The expert also testified that a bullet taken from Kulbicki’s gun did not exactly match the two fragments, but was sufficiently similar to conclude that the two bullets probably came from the same package.  In light of this and other evidence, Kulbicki’s jury convicted him of first-degree murder.

Kulbicki subsequently filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which he amended in 2006 to include a claim that defense counsel was ineffective for failing to question the legitimacy of CBLA.  Between the time of the conviction and 2006, CBLA had fallen out of favor, was no longer generally accepted by the scientific community, and was therefore inadmissible.

Continue reading

On December 2, 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided State v. Watts.  This decision, coming on the heels of the late-September decision of State v. Witt, may suggest a continuing erosion of a criminal defendant’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The police obtained a warrant to search the defendant and his apartment, set up a surveillance, and waited for the defendant to leave his residence.  The defendant left his home and walked to a liquor store located about 1 1/2 blocks from his apartment.  He was detained when he left the liquor store and patted down for weapons.  The officers also took his apartment keys, but decided to not conduct a more thorough search of the defendant’s person at that point because they were then located in a busy area with pedestrian and vehicular traffic.  Some of the officers then returned to the defendant’s apartment with his keys.  They entered and searched it, but did not locate drugs or related paraphernalia.  Other officers handcuffed the defendant, placed him in a police car, and transported him back to his apartment.  He shook his leg as he walked, and four bundles of heroin fell from his pants.

The defendant moved to suppress the drugs, arguing that the police could not detain him to conduct another search after the pat down on the street.  The trial court granted the motion and suppressed the drugs, finding that the officers could not continue to detain the defendant and conduct further searches after the search of his person conducted outside the liquor store failed to yield any drugs.  The court believed that the warrant gave the police one opportunity to search the defendant – either outside the liquor store or back at his apartment – and additional searches violated his constitutional rights.  Continue reading

Generally speaking, a motor vehicle is not protected from unreasonable searches and seizures to the same extent as a home.  Our State’s Supreme Court has further reduced that level of protection.

William Witt was pulled over on Route 48 in Carneys Point in Salem County in December 2012.  Witt’s high beams were activated, and he failed to dim them as he passed a nearby police officer.  The officer spoke with Witt, determined that he was intoxicated, performed field sobriety tests, and arrested him.  The officer searched the car for an open alcohol container and located a handgun in the center console.  Witt moved to suppress the gun, arguing that the search and seizure were unreasonable.  This argument was based on the 2009 Supreme Court decision, State v. Pena-Flores, which required the police to have both probable cause and exigent circumstances before conducting a warrantless search of an automobile.  The search of Witt’s vehicle was unconstitutional because there were no exigent circumstances preventing the police from first obtaining a warrant.

In the September 2015 decision of State v. Witt, the NJ Supreme Court overturned Pena-Flores and retreated to the standard set in the 1981 decision of State v. Alston.  The earlier standard allowed police to search a vehicle without a warrant when they had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained evidence of a crime, and where the probable cause stemmed from circumstances that were unforeseeable and spontaneous. Continue reading