Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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 ›

The United States Supreme Court decided Grady v. North Carolina on March 30, 2015.  After completing his prison term for sex offenses, the State determined that Grady was a recidivist sex offender, and wanted to place him on satellite-based monitoring.  Grady argued that the monitoring program, which required him to wear a monitoring device at all times, violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  Grady’s argument was based on U.S. v. Jones, where the Supreme Court held that installing a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car was a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  The State courts rejected Grady’s argument, finding that the monitoring program at issues was not a Fourth Amendment search.  This conclusion was based, apparently in large part, upon the view that the proceeding giving rise to the monitoring was civil in nature, whereas Jones was a criminal case, which entailed different (higher) legal standards.

The Supreme Court rejected the reasoning of the State courts.  First, the monitoring program was a “search” because it enabled the State to “physically intrude on a constitutionally protected area … [A] State conducts a search when it attaches a device to a person’s body, without consent, for the purpose of tracking that individual’s movements.”  The fact that the monitoring program was civil in nature was rendered meaningless by settled law establishing “that the Fourth Amendment’s protection extends beyond the sphere of criminal investigations [] and the government’s purpose in collecting information does not control whether the method of collection constitutes a search.”

Ultimately, however, the Court observed that the Fourth Amendment protects only against unreasonable searches and seizures.  Thus, it remanded the matter to the North Carolina courts to determine whether the monitoring program was reasonable when viewed as a search. Continue reading ›

The United States Supreme Court decided Rodriguez v. United States on April 21, 2015.  The decision enhances Fourth Amendment protections in cases involving motor vehicle stops.

Briefly, Rodriguez, the driver, and his passenger were stopped by a Valley, Nebraska police officer for veering onto the shoulder of a State highway and then jerking back onto the road.  The officer was a K-9 officer who had his police dog with him.  He conducted a records check on the vehicle’s occupants, questioned Rodriguez and his passenger, checked all of the necessary documents, wrote a warning ticket, and returned the documents to the occupants with the warning ticket.  Thus, the main purpose of the initial stop – the investigation of a traffic infraction – was completed.

Nevertheless, the officer did not consider Rodriguez and his passenger free to leave.  He requested permission to walk his dog around the vehicle, and Rodriguez declined.  The officer then instructed Rodriguez to turn off and exit the vehicle, and stand in front of his patrol car to await the arrival of a second officer.  Rodriguez complied, the second officer arrived, the dog was escorted around the vehicle and alerted to the presence of drugs (methamphetamine).  Significantly, approximately seven to eight minutes had passed between the issuance of the warning ticket and the alert by the dog. Continue reading ›

Justia Lawyer Rating
New Jersey Bar Association Badge
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Badge
 ACDL - NJ Badge