Privacy protections govern the investigation of the most serious crimes. Earlier this month, the New Jersey state Supreme Court threw out evidence sized in a shooting investigation that was seized in a warrantless search of a rooming house. Appeals courts’ decisions led to the release of the person imprisoned for weapons charges.
This case began with a shooting in a Trenton bar in March 2016. A New Jersey state trooper heard the gunfire in his office and came to the bar with his supervisor. Trenton police broadcasted a description of the suspect with the first name of a person who lived nearby.
Police entered a rooming house through an unlocked front door to search for suspects or evidence in its common areas. After finding nothing, police returned to their vehicles and continued to search the neighborhood.
Officers however, returned to the home and entered it again. Although the front door had a lock, it was unsecured and opened when a trooper knocked. He believed he was in a rooming house or boarding home. Officers received no information after knocking on two doors and speaking to those residents.
At a third door, the resident opened the door and told officers he would get his wallet to show his identification. Through the open door, they saw a marijuana bag in plain view and arrested the resident. After obtaining a search warrant, they found the handgun.
The man was unable to suppress the gun evidence at pre-trial hearings. He plead guilty to a firearms charge and was sentenced to five years imprisonment.
In 2019, a New Jersey appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision. It ruled that residents had an expectation of privacy in the rooming house’s hallway and common areas. Citing a Florida state Supreme Court ruling and other opinions, the court found that a rooming or boarding home’s interior is different than hallways in apartments or other residences which are public and open to police performing their duties.
The court ruled that the police should not have entered the residence without a warrant and their search was unconstitutional. Because there was no warrant, the marijuana was not lawfully seized under the plain view exception to the Constitution’s search and seizure protections. It ordered the release of this person from prison.
The state Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the appellate court decision. It summarized and supported the appellate court ruling but did not issue an independent opinion.
An attorney can help discover whether evidence was improperly seized and if your rights were violated. Lawyers can also assist you with presenting a criminal defense to charges.