Police make quick decisions during potentially dangerous situations every day. Officers must be wary of their surroundings when responding to emergency or community care-taking calls, for example when called regarding missing persons or the possibility of domestic violence, in addition to other possible illegal activity. These scenarios often demand warrantless searches, even when there are no apparent signs of trouble. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled, however, that warrantless searches should be limited to cases where trouble is evident.
Police officers often perform community care-taking – or “check the welfare” calls – as part of their law enforcement duties. These calls may include emergencies like helping the sick or injured or checking up on missing people, abandoned vehicles and domestic disturbance complaints. Typically the scope of responding to community care calls has included the ability for officers to complete warrantless searches to assist people in need. However, a recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision stemming from a 2008 domestic violence call has now limited these searches.
NJ Supreme Court Case
In 2008, an anonymous 911 phone call was made to police that a woman was being assaulted by her boyfriend, who had a gun. Multiple officers were dispatched to the apartment, but there were no signs of domestic violence when they arrived. Police subsequently searched both the boyfriend and the apartment, and found a .38 caliber handgun in the immediate area where the boyfriend was sitting. The boyfriend was arrested for unlawful possession of a weapon.
Evidence of Trouble
The boyfriend, who was convicted of second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, appealed his case to the New Jersey Supreme Court. In a 5-1 decision, the court determined that although the police were authorized to ensure the safety of the woman and her son, and to frisk the boyfriend, they should not have performed a warrantless search of the apartment without evidence of domestic violence or other danger. The court’s main reasoning behind this ruling was to protect individual rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
If you live in New Jersey and were charged with or convicted of domestic violence or another crime involving a warrantless search of your person or property, contact a New Jersey criminal defense attorney for advice. Your warrantless search may have been performed unlawfully. An experienced criminal lawyer can help you investigate the circumstances of your case and work with you to fight against unlawful searches.