Generally speaking, there are two broad categories of searches. Either a search can be made with a search warrant, or it can be warrantless. Our law prefers searches that are made pursuant to a warrant. A warrantless search will be valid only if the search and seizure activities fall within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, each of which has its own detailed requirements.
Evidence seized pursuant to a search conducted with a warrant is, as a general rule, harder to suppress than evidence seized without a warrant. Defense counsel must carefully review the warrant paperwork, which consists of an application submitted in support of the warrant, the warrant itself, and the return on the warrant, so as to locate defects in the application process that can serve as the basis for a suppression motion. The identification of such defects was the basis for the recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision in State v. Boone, which was decided on December 18, 2017.
Boone faced a series of narcotics and weapons charges stemming from contraband that the police located in his Hackensack apartment in August, 2012. The search of his apartment was conducted pursuant to a warrant. Boone moved for an order suppressing the evidence since the warrant application lacked any information as to why his specific unit should be searched.
The trial judge denied Boone’s suppression motion. Given all of the surrounding facts and circumstances, which included information about hand-to-hand transactions, surveillance, and prior interactions with the defendant to establish probable cause for the search. Boone ultimately pleaded guilty to possessing illegal drugs with the intent to distribute them as well as a weapons offense, but he retained the right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. The Superior Court Appellate Division, however, agreed with the trial court, and found that the warrant application had sufficient circumstantial information to support a search of Boone’s residence.
The New Jersey Supreme Court, however, disagreed. That court noted that the warrant application contained a body of general information describing Boone’s alleged drug dealing activities in the immediate area, but failed to specify how law enforcement knew he lived in the apartment that was searched, or why that apartment (as opposed to one of the other 29 apartments in the building) should be the subject of a search. Thus, the warrant application was defective because it lacked specific information explaining why Boone’s unit, as opposed to the other units in the same building, should be searched. As a result of these deficiencies in the warrant application, Boone’s conviction was vacated.
Almost every criminal defense attorney will agree that evidence seized pursuant to a search warrant is harder to suppress than evidence seized without one. It is up to defense counsel to carefully review the warrant paperwork and determine whether or not it contains defects that can support a suppression motion. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers put great effort in drafting search warrant paperwork that can withstand any defense challenge including, without limitation, providing the necessary level of detail concerning the place or items to be searched and/or the things to be seized. But this case illustrates that warrant paperwork is not always perfect, and that it is simply wrong to automatically assume that a search conducted pursuant to a warrant is thereby insulated from any challenge.
James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal defense attorney based in New Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey. Mr. Friedman represents individuals with criminal charges in all state and federal courts in New Jersey and New York City.