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

Articles Posted in Search and Seizure

Our personal information is constantly being collected by third parties without our realization.  Every time we use one of our devices, we expose personal details and information to collection by any number of entities that use the data for various purposes.  Privacy is clearly on the decline as the use of one device or another becomes a standard and unavoidable part of life.  An individual cannot be part of modern society absent a cell phone and/or computer.  These facts all have serious implications for criminal defendants.

In 1979, the United States Supreme Court decided Smith v. Maryland.  There the Court discussed what has become known as the “Third Party Doctrine”, which provides that individuals do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily given to a third party (e.g., telephone carrier or bank).  This information is then available to Government agencies, including law enforcement agencies.

The Court is now scheduled to hear a case that asks what the police and prosecutors can legitimately do with personal data that is collected from third parties.  Carpenter v. United States could greatly alter Fourth Amendment principles and procedures as they must be applied in cases involving data resulting from the use of cellphones, computers, and similar devices. Continue reading

The New Jersey Supreme Court decided State v. Rosario on June 6, 2017.  The case is important because, among other things, it discusses and distinguishes between the two most common types of police-citizen encounters, which are field inquiries and investigative detentions.

The facts are uncomplicated.  Police received an anonymous tip that defendant was selling illegal drugs from her home in a residential development, as well as from her vehicle.  One night, an officer patrolling the development noticed a moving silhouette in a parked car, which turned out to be the defendant’s vehicle, and decided to investigate further.  He pulled his patrol car up behind, and perpendicular to, the defendant’s car in such a way that the latter was blocked in.  The officer then activated his rooftop alley light which was aimed at the defendant’s car, but did not activate the siren or emergency lights.  The alley light enabled him to see a woman, who turned out to be the defendant, in the driver’s seat.  He observed her moving around in the driver’s seat and leaning toward the passenger’s seat.  He then exited his cruiser and approached the driver’s side door of the defendant’s car.  The window was partially open, and he asked the defendant for her license and other documents.  She produced the requested material, and the officer recognized her as the subject of the previously received anonymous tip and recalled that he had previously arrested her on narcotics-related charges.  He asked the defendant what she was doing, and she responded that she was smoking a cigarette, but the officer did not see a cigarette or butt.  He then asked her why she was moving around and turning toward the passenger seat when he pulled up, and she responded that she was putting on make-up and turned to put it away in her purse.  The officer then asked her how she could do that in the dark, but she did not respond.  He then asked if there was anything in the vehicle he should know about and, according to the officer, the defendant responded that she had the same thing he arrested her for previously.  According to the officer, the defendant then simply reached over to the passenger seat for an eyeglass case.  She opened it and the officer could see a white powdery substance.  The officer then arrested the defendant.  The trial court denied the defendant’s suppression motion, the Appellate Division affirmed, and the Supreme Court granted certification.

The Supreme Court began by recalling that field inquiries, and investigative detentions or “Terry” stops, are two of the three types of encounters that an individual can have with law enforcement.  A field inquiry involves a situation where an individual, under all of the surrounding circumstances, reasonably believes that they cannot simply walk away without answering the officer’s questions.  In an investigative detention, the person reasonably believes that their freedom of movement has been restricted.  Thus, an investigative detention, unlike a field inquiry, is a temporary seizure of the person, and must therefore be based upon the officer’s reasonable and particularized suspicion that the person has engaged, or is about to engage, in criminal activity.  The nature and quality of these encounters are measured from the perspective of the individual who is the subject of the stop. Continue reading

Law enforcement agencies that investigate child pornography cases face special technological challenges when tracking the distribution of contraband on the Internet, and then in building a case against a specific defendant.  A case in point is “Dreamboard”, an online bulletin board that advertised and distributed child pornography.  Dreamboard users employed encryption software, peer-to-peer networks and the so-called “Dark Web” to share images between and amount members/subscribers in 13 different countries.  In fact, all Dreamboard subscribers were required to use specific encryption software when viewing and/or sharing images.  Further, each file description had a specific link and password which allowed access to images through another website that stored encrypted files.  Dreamboard was the target of a 2009 sting operation that resulted in approximately 70 convictions.  The site was infiltrated through the efforts of several dozen law enforcement agencies including, without limitation, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, and 35 domestic ICE offices.

Dreamboard users obviously had to have both a level of technological skill, as well as the appropriate equipment and software, to be members.  The Dreamboard case was, however, not unique in this regard.  In a recent Louisiana case, a defendant set his computer to wipe the hard drive clean if a password was not entered within a few seconds of opening the device.  Another defendant asked an undercover agent posing as a minor to send him a picture during an online chat.  Law enforcement personnel are not allowed to distribute pornography, so the agent’s smartphone would not allow him to send a photo.  This ultimately led the defendant to believe that the agent was using a smartphone, at which point he ended the conversation.

If it all sounds complicated, that’s because it is.  The possession and distribution of online pornography is becoming increasingly sophisticated in terms of technology and scope.  These cases can include the use of password protection, encryption, file servers and/or peer-to-peer networks, software designed to eliminate evidence, remote storage, partitioned hard drives, and the like.  These cases are further complicated by the fact that pornography has gone global, and frequently involves the use of mobile devices, apps, and social media sites including What’s App, Kik Messenger, Instagram and Snapchat.  Finally, cases can involve terabytes of data.  (One terabyte equals about 1,000 gigabytes, and can hold approximately 3.6 million images or 300 hours of video.) Continue reading

In State v. Robinson, decided on May 1, 2017, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered the extent to which the “protective sweep” doctrine, which is an exception to the warrant requirement, applies to a police search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle during a traffic stop.  In Robinson, an officer observed a vehicle driving in a manner he considered unsafe in an area known for drug activity.  He stopped the vehicle, which contained four occupants, and asked the driver for his license and registration.  The driver, Robinson, misidentified himself, told the officer that his license was suspended, but provided proof of insurance and a registration.  One of the other occupants, Henderson, misidentified himself as the Robinson.  The remaining occupants correctly identified themselves and produced ID cards.  The driver stated his friend owned the vehicle, but did not know his name.  The officer learned from his dispatcher that the driver had an outstanding warrant and was known to carry weapons, and that Henderson had a “caution for weapons”.  The officer called for backup, and other officers arrived.  Defendant and Henderson were removed from the vehicle, arrested, and handcuffed.  Both were searched, but neither had weapons.  Some of the officers now present watched the defendant and Henderson , both of whom stood on the roadside and could not return to the car.  The other two occupants were detained, but not arrested.  One of them left her purse on the front passenger seat.  An officer then conducted a sweep of the car’s interior to check for weapons, at which time he touched the bottom of the purse and detected the outline of a gun.  He retrieved the gun, brought it to his vehicle, and told the other officers to arrest the remaining two occupants.  Defendant pleaded guilty, but later moved to suppress the gun.  The trial court denied his motion, but a majority of the Appellate Division panel found that the officer’s search of the car was not a lawful protective sweep.  One judge dissented.

The Supreme Court found that the surrounding circumstances created a reasonable suspicion that the vehicle contained a weapon, but the five officers present at the scene acted in a manner that eliminated the risk that any of the four occupants could immediately access a weapon.  Thus the protective sweep exception to the warrant requirement could not be used to salvage the search.

In discussing this conclusion in depth, the Court observed that warrantless searches are permissible only if they fall within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement.  The protective sweep exception, which derives from Terry v. Ohio, held that police may conduct an investigatory stop if there are “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inference from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.”  The Court also noted that Terry stops are narrowly tailored to allow a reasonable search for weapons.  Further, the United States Supreme Court applied the protective sweep exception to a vehicle in Michigan v. Long, and New Jersey adopted that standard in State v. Lund.  The standard was discussed further in State v. Gamble.  Taken together, Long, Lund and Gamble therefore set the standard for a valid protective sweep of a vehicle that has been stopped.  To justify such a search, the State must present specific and articulable facts that, when taken with the rational inferences from those facts, justify a belief that someone in the car is dangerous and may have immediate access to a weapon.  Protective sweeps of vehicles cannot be justified by the potential presence of a weapon; rather, the doctrine turns on imminent danger to the police when someone has access to a vehicle that may hold a weapon, or may be able to overpower or evade officers at the scene. Continue reading

In State v. Bacome, decided January 31, 2017, two Woodbridge detectives observed the defendant-driver and a passenger in a Ford Bronco.  The passenger, who was in the front seat, was later identified as the vehicle’s owner.  The detectives claimed that both men were known drug dealers.  They followed the Bronco to Newark, but lost sight of it in an area purportedly known for drug trafficking.  They then assumed that the Bronco would return to Woodbridge with drugs purchased in Newark.  They spotted the Bronco after returning to Woodbridge, and stopped it when they saw the passenger was not wearing a seatbelt.

Each detective approached the Bronco from opposite sides of the vehicle.  One detective stated that Bacome leaned forward and appeared to be reaching under his seat.  He immediately ordered Bacome out of the car.  The other detective then ordered the passenger from the car, and both men complied.  Each was questioned separately about their trip, and gave contradictory responses.  Since the passenger was now out of the car, the detective was able to to see rolled up paper shaped like a straw and a small piece of steel wool.  Both items were indicative of drug use.  The passenger consented in writing to a vehicle search.  The search yielded crack cocaine and other paraphernalia.  Both men were arrested.

The trial court denied defendants’ motion to suppress the drugs and other seized items, finding that the vehicle stop based upon the seatbelt violation was lawful.  Further, the removal of both men from the Bronco was also lawful because the detectives had reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity. Continue reading

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

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