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New Jersey Supreme Court Provides Guidance on “Exigent Circumstances” Warrantless Searches

by Christopher Zoukis

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling on July 25, 2017 in which it granted qualified immunity to a police officer accused of a police-created “exigent circumstances” search. But in the process of doing so, the Court put police officers statewide on notice that such searches are constitutionally impermissible and will not be tolerated in the future.

The case stemmed from a 2008 New Jersey State Police investigation into a home invasion. During the investigation, State Police received a tip that Denise Brown was in possession of a locket stolen from the home. Detectives Christian Eskridge and John Steet decided to attempt to gain Brown’s consent to search her home rather than obtain a warrant.The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling on July 25, 2017 in which it granted qualified immunity to a police officer accused of a police-created “exigent circumstances” search. But in the process of doing so, the Court put police officers statewide on notice that such searches are constitutionally impermissible and will not be tolerated in the future.

When they arrived at Brown’s home, she refused to consent to the search. Based on her refusal to consent, the detectives claimed to be concerned that Brown would destroy evidence if allowed reentry into her home. They thus gave her a choice: remain outside while they obtained a warrant or go inside accompanied by an officer. A warrant was eventually secured, and the residence was searched. No locket was found.

Brown sued the detectives under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act for violation of her state constitutional right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. The detectives raised qualified immunity as a defense to the suit. After trial, a jury found for the detectives. The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed, finding that qualified immunity did not apply.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey took up the case and ruled that because the law regarding “exigent circumstances” warrantless searches on these facts was not clearly established on the date of the search, i.e., November 20, 2008, the detectives were entitled to qualified immunity. In so ruling, however, the Court clarified the law on these types of searches for the future, making it clear that the behavior in the present case will not be entitled to qualified immunity going forward.      

The Court stated, in dicta, that in the case of true exigent circumstances, accompanied by probable cause, police may still enter a residence without a warrant. However, the Court put a decisive end to the use of police-created exigencies, such as the one used by Detectives Eskridge and Steet.

“[I]n the future,” wrote the high court, “law enforcement officials may not … enter an apartment to secure it while awaiting a search warrant…. They must get a warrant and, if reasonably necessary, may secure the apartment for a reasonable period of time from the outside.”

“A person answering her door and faced with a request by a law enforcement officer for consent to search her home for a specific item has every right to say no and shut the door,” the Court explained. “A person asked that question outside her home, in her yard, on her sidewalk, or on her front steps has the equivalent right to walk away, enter her home, and decline the officer the right to enter.” The Supreme Court reversed the appellate division and reinstated the trial court’s dismissal of the action against Detective Steet.

See: Brown v. State, 164 A.3d 735 (N.J. 2017). 

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