State v. Watts – New NJ Decision Suggests Further Retreat on Search and Seizure Rights

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. 

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s ruling, finding that the police exhausted the warrant when they searched the defendant outside the liquor store, and the search warrant for the residence did not permit a later warrantless search of the defendant.  The appellate panel noted that the “terms of the search warrant [permitted] a search rather than multiple searches.”

The Supreme Court reversed, finding that the police did not act in an objectively unreasonable manner by conducting what the Court viewed as an initial pat-down of the defendant, and then detaining defendant for a more thorough search in a controlled, safe and secure location.  In the Court’s view, the location of the initial detention may not be suitable for an intrusive search, and the initial search was merely incidental and/or preliminary to fulfilling the main objective of the warrant, which was a search of the defendant for drugs and paraphernalia.  The fact that the police conducted a limited search outside the liquor store did not require them to also conduct a more thorough one at the same location.  The search activities at the apartment was a reasonable continuation of the search commenced outside the liquor store.

Generally speaking, a warrant is supposed to regulate police search activities, but Watts gives the police considerable latitude in this very sensitive area.  How many times can the police search a given defendant pursuant to a single search warrant?  Exactly what makes a given location “unsuitable” for a relatively “intrusive” search?  At what point is the search no longer “reasonable”?  This decision broadens police discretion concerning all of these issues, and may open the door to abusive practices.

James S Friedman LLC represents criminal defendants in drug and weapons cases in the State and Federal trial courts in New York and New Jersey.  If you want to discuss thorough, thoughtful and aggressive representation in a criminal case, contact the firm immediately.


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