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New Jersey Supreme Court: Third-Party’s Apparent Authority to Consent to Search Premises Does Not Extend to Defendant’s Personal Property Located on Premises

by Anthony W Accurso

The Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a third party, with property in a storage trailer shared with the defendant, had apparent authority to authorize a search of the trailer but not a search of a bag belonging to the defendant in which the third party has no property.

N.D. and her adult daughter contacted Borough of Highlands police on the morning of July 27, 2019. N.D. showed text messages to officers supporting the claim that her boyfriend of four years, Anthony Miranda, had threatened her and her children. She then showed them fresh bruises claiming Miranda had assaulted her. She also stated that Miranda possessed two handguns and kept them in a black bag in a residential trailer they shared.

Officers engaged the Domestic Violence Response Team and contacted a local magistrate. The magistrate authorized a restraining order, arrest warrant, and a search warrant for the trailer in which Miranda and N.D. lived.

Just before 11:00 a.m., officers arrived at the trailer and arrested Miranda, whereupon he was transported to the police station for processing into the county jail. Miranda remained in police custody during the events that transpired afterwards at the residential trailer and nearby storage trailer.

Once Miranda was taken away, Captain George Roxby began searching for the “black drawstring-type bag” described by N.D. She arrived a little later, and Roxby notified her that he was unable to locate the bag or any firearms.

N.D., her two adult children, and another female family member (unidentified in court documents) speculated that the weapons could be in a nearby storage trailer. Roxby asked whether N.D. had access to that location and whether she kept property in it, and she answered affirmatively.

The storage trailer was located nearby on the same street as the trailer home. When Roxby approached it, he noted only an unlocked screen door prevented access to the inside. N.D. again affirmed she kept property there along with Miranda.

Inside the trailer, visible in plain sight on a counter was the bag N.D. identified as belonging solely to Miranda, in which he allegedly kept the weapons. Roxby emptied the contents of the bag, removing a police badge, a .38 caliber pistol, a .25 caliber pistol, and a box of ammo. He then removed the magazines and chambered rounds from each weapon to prepare them for transport to the police station, where they were secured as evidence.

Miranda was indicted for terroristic threats, N.J.S.A. 2C:12-3(a); receiving stolen property, N.J.S.A. 2C-20-7(a); and certain persons not to have weapons, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7(b)(1).

He filed a motion to suppress the items seized during the search of the storage trailer and his black bag. The trial court held a two-day hearing during which Roxby testified and his bodycam footage was entered into evidence.

The trial court denied Miranda’s motion on the ground that N.D. had authority to authorize the search of the trailer because she had access to it, stored property there, and the bag was in plain view.

Miranda accepted a plea deal in which he agreed to the weapons charge in exchange for dismissal of the others while allowing him to appeal the outcome of the suppression motion. He was sentenced to five years in prison, and he filed a timely appeal.

The Appellate Division affirmed the judgment of the trial court, concluding “N.D.’s apparent authority to consent to the search of the storage trailer extended to the black bag found in that trailer.”

On appeal to the state Supreme Court, Miranda challenged the search of the trailer and his bag, arguing N.D. lacked apparent authority to authorize the searches, and even if N.D. had apparent authority to consent to the search of the storage trailer, that authority did not extend to the search of his black bag. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey also submitted amici briefs pertaining to the searches.

The State argued that N.D. had apparent authority to authorize the searches, or alternatively, the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement justified the search of Miranda’s black bag.

The Court began its analysis by noting that both the U.S. Constitution and New Jersey Constitution provide guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const. amend. IV; N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 7; see also State v. Cushing, 140 A.3d 1281 (N.J. 2016) (discussing federal and state constitutional safeguards). In order for a search to be constitutional, officers “must obtain a warrant or show that a recognized exception to the warrant requirement applies.” State v. Wright, 114 A.3d 340 (N.J. 2015). The State bears the burden of proving that a recognized exception applies to a warrantless search. Cushing.

One of the most frequently relied upon recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement is “a search that is conducted pursuant to consent.” Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973); State v. Domicz, 907 A.2d 395 (N.J. 2006). Furthermore, a third party may consent to a search, but consent is “not to be implied from the mere property interest a third-party has in the property … but rests rather on mutual use of the property by persons generally having joint access or control for most purposes.” United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164 (1974).

New Jersey also recognizes “apparent authority,” which “arises when a third party (1) does not possess actual authority to consent but appears to have such authority and (2) the law enforcement officer reasonably relied, from an objective perspective, on that appearance of authority.” Cushing; see also Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177 (1990).

Referring to facts available from the suppression hearing, the Court noted N.D. repeated assertions that she had a property interest in the storage trailer. Further, it concluded she had access because, “when Roxby approached the storage trailer, the main door was open and the screen door was unlocked, either because the doors had been left open or because N.D. or a family member had unlocked them for Roxby.”

“Considered in tandem,” wrote the Court, “those factors support an objectively reasonable conclusion … that N.D. had apparent authority to consent to the search of the trailer.” See State v. Coles, 95 A.3d 136 (N.J. 2014).

However, the Court stated that N.D.’s apparent authority did not extend to Miranda’s bag inside the trailer. “Even where a third party has authority to consent to a search of the premises, that authority does not extend to a container in which the third party denies ownership, because the police are left with no misapprehension as to the limit of [the third party’s] authority to consent.” State v. Allen, 603 A.2d 71 (App. Div. 1992).

Conceding that N.D. lacked apparent authority to consent to a search of Miranda’s black bag, the State invoked the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. See State v. DeLuca, 775 A.2d 1284 (N.J. 2001). This exception applies when officers have an “objectively reasonable basis to believe that prompt action is needed to meet an imminent danger.” State v. Hemenway, 216 A.3d 118 (N.J. 2019). Exigency is often found where courts determine “there was an objectively reasonable basis to believe that lives might be endangered or evidence destroyed by the delay necessary to secure a warrant.” State v. Manning, 222 A.3d 662 (N.J. 2020). The Manning Court enumerated six non-exclusive factors courts can use to determine when exigent circumstances exist.

However, the Court determined that the dispositive factor in the present case was the fact that Miranda was “unarmed and in custody and would not be immediately released” at the time police entered and searched the storage trailer and Miranda’s black bag. “He was therefore not in a position,” wrote to the Court, “to retrieve, use, or conceal the weapons pending the issuance of a warrant to search the black bag, and there is no evidence in the record that he could have secured the assistance of a third party who had a key to the storage trailer.” Thus, there wasn’t any exigent circumstance justifying application of that exception to the warrant requirement, the Court concluded.

Therefore, neither the exception of apparent authority nor exigent circumstances applied to justify the warrantless search of Miranda’s bag, and so, the Court held that Miranda’s motion to suppress should have been granted.

Accordingly, the Court vacated Miranda’s conviction and remanded the case with an order to grant his suppression motion. See: State v. Miranda, 292 A.3d 473 (N.J. 2023).  

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