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 ›