Even Rundown Homes Require Search Warrants

No matter how run down a home may appear, police are required to obtain a search warrant prior to conducting a search, unless another warrant exception applies.  In a 4-2 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court in State v. Brown, the Court found that despite a house entered by State Troopers having “one or more windows broken, the interior in disarray [  ] and the back door off its hinges…” they still needed a warrant to search the house. State v. Brown, Jan. 29, 2014 WL 301355, 1.

In May of 2010, New Jersey State Troopers arrested four individuals standing outside two homes on Line Street in Camden on drug charges after conducting surveillance on Wednesday the 12th and the following Monday, the 17thId. at 2. Trooper Kurt Kennedy had been surveilling one of the homes during both days and saw, what he concluded to be, many drug deals taking place. Id. He called in other troopers to make arrests on the second day. Id.

After arresting the men, one of the other troopers on the scene took a key from one of the defendants that opened the padlock on the front door. Id. at 3. The troopers then went into the house and found drugs, drug paraphernalia, and weapons. Id. All four men were charged with various drug and weapon offenses,  based, in large part, on the evidence taken from the home on Line Street. The defendants moved to have the evidence suppressed due to the troopers’ lack of a search warrant. The State asserted that the lack of warrant was excused because the house was abandoned. Id. at 1.

The trial court upheld the motion, finding that “the State did not establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the shabby and neglected row house was abandoned property.” Id. at 1-2. The court found that, “the troopers did not attempt to ascertain who owned 820 Line Street; the front door was secured by a lock; the back door was propped shut from the inside; and defendants [  ] used a key to enter and exit the building, ‘thus evidencing a possessory interest in the house and the property inside.’ “ Id. at 3.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s ruling and the case was appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The general rule is that police need a warrant to search a home unless there is an applicable exception. When property is abandoned, no one has a right to it so therefore there are no 4th Amendment rights attached (the Amendment from which the search warrant requirement comes), and therefore no search warrant would be necessary to search it.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has found that the New Jersey State Constitution affords its citizens greater protections than that offered by the U.S. Constitution when it comes to searches. “A proprietary, possessory, or participatory interest in either the place searched or the property seized” is sufficient to allow a New Jersey defendant the ability to challenge evidence obtained through a warrantless search. Id. at 6, quoting State v. Alston, 88 N.J., 211, 225 (1981).

The Court found that the test is, “whether, given the totality of the circumstances, an objectively reasonable police officer would believe the property is abandoned.” Id. at 8. It went further to state that, “A police officer’s sincere, good-faith, but unreasonable belief that real property is abandoned will not justify a warrantless search when a defendant has an apparent possessory interest in that property.” Id.

Some factors highlighted by the Court to be considered in making that determination are, whether the officer “examined readily available records on the ownership of the property,” “the property’s condition and whether the … owner … has taken measures to secure the building from intruders,” and an “officer’s personal knowledge of a particular building and the surrounding area.” Brown, 8-9.

The Court also pointed out that trespassers will not have the ability to challenge a search of an abandoned property. Id. at 9.

The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court’s findings of fact and affirmed that the house was not abandoned and therefore the troopers were required to have a warrant to search the home.

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