State v. Legette – Important Clarification of the Ability of Police to Seize Evidence During an Investigatory Stop

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.After the trial court’s denial of his suppression motion, Legette pleaded guilty to possession of a weapon by a convicted felon and was sentenced to a five-year custodial term with no parole.   The Appellate Division affirmed, based upon federal and state case law holding that police officers could follow arrestees into their homes.  The panel reasoned that the concerns that arise during arrest scenarios carry over to situations involving individuals who have not been arrested, but who have been detained during an investigatory stop.  Thus, the panel concluded that officers could follow detainees into their homes just like arrestees.

In reversing, the Supreme Court found that the case law that served as the basis for the appellate panel’s decision did not support a warrantless entry into a detainee’s home; rather, they apply only to situations where the suspect has been arrested prior to the entry into the home.  The Court observed that the underlying cases held that once someone has been arrested, the arresting officer has the right to remain literally by their side for, among other reasons, officer safety.  Further, once someone is arrested, their privacy rights are diminished.  The holdings in the prior cases were contingent upon the fact that the defendant had been arrested before the officer entered their residence.  Accordingly, because Legette was a detainee, as opposed to an arrestee, those cases were inapplicable to his situation.

Additionally, the Court found that because the reasonable suspicion required to justify an investigatory stop is a lower standard than the probable cause necessary to support an arrest, there must be limitations on the extent of police activity during investigatory stops.  Police must employ the least intrusive means necessary to dispel or verify their suspicions in the shortest possible time period.  Because they are limited to taking self-protective measures during investigatory stops, there is no basis for them to enter the detainee’s home without a warrant.

The message is clear – search and seizure activities are relatively limited during investigatory stops, and police conduct exceeding those limits that results in the discovery and seizure of evidence should be followed by suppression.

Based in central New Jersey, criminal defense attorney James S. Friedman represents defendants with criminal charges in the New Jersey Superior Court in all New Jersey counties, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey in Newark, Trenton and Camden, all New Jersey municipal courts, and the state and federal criminal courts located in Manhattan and Brooklyn.  If you or someone you know has criminal charges, call us immediately to discuss them, to learn about your options, and to start planning your defense.






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