Is There Really Such a Thing as Warrantless Entry?
You know the law. Or, at least you think you do. As far as you’re concerned, the police just can’t enter your house without a warrant. In the meantime, there’s something you should know. Under New Jersey law, a warrantless entry exists in select circumstances. Truth be told, New Jersey has strict laws when it comes to search and seizure. Meanwhile, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution suggests the circumstances when the police need to apply for a warrant to enter your home.
However, there are exceptions to the warrant requirement that are considered exigent circumstances. In case you’re unfamiliar with this terminology, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Missouri v. McNeely provided some insight into what constitutes exigent circumstances as follows:
- Police may enter a home to render emergency assistance when someone is injured or needs protection from imminent injury.
- Law enforcement authorities don’t need a warrant when there is a fire on the premises.
- Hot pursuit of a criminal suspect constitutes a reason for warrantless entry. For example, chasing an armed robber into a building represents an exigent circumstance. Police are also able to search for weapons.
- Issues concerning the destruction of evidence constitute a reason for entering a home.
In the meantime, what happens if you dispute the reason for law enforcement authorities entering your home without a warrant? Can you be arrested for obstructing their entry? Earlier this year, the New Jersey State Supreme Court considered a matter involving a defendant accused of holding the police off from entering his house. He felt they needed a warrant. The case offers some interesting insight.
Defendant Disagreed with Warrantless Entry
On March 12, 2014, the Cliffside Park Police Department received a call regarding a potential domestic violence incident. Two officers responded to the scene and knocked on the door. Andrew Fede partially opened the door, keeping its chained lock in place. The police explained they were there to check on the well-being of the occupants. Fede told the officers that he was alone in the apartment. Although he lived there with his girlfriend, she was away out of state.
Despite Fede’s assertions, the police reaffirmed their intention to enter the premises. In response, the defendant told them that they needed a warrant. The officers explained their role under the community-caretaking doctrine, a recognized exception to warrantless entry. Attempts were made to defuse the situation. With Fede at the door with the chain lock in place, the policemen suggested the defendant speak with their supervisors. Fede remained unconvinced that he needed to allow the cops in without a warrant.
- Meanwhile, the officers continued to express concern over the initial concern regarding the welfare of someone in the apartment. They, therefore, broke past the chain lock and into the apartment. Truth be told, New Jersey courts continually emphasize the need to investigate domestic violence matters.
Ultimately, a search of the premises validated Fede’s assertions. He was alone in his house. That said, the police still arrested Fede. They charged him with obstruction of the law. According to NJSA 2C:29-1, it is a criminal offense when someone “purposely obstructs, impairs or perverts the administration of law or other governmental function or prevents or attempts to prevent a public servant from lawfully performing an official function.”
Obstructing Administration of Law
The local court heard the obstruction charge and agreed it was reasonable for the police to enter Fede’s premises without a warrant. The trial court further determined that by failing to remove the chain lock, Fede failed to cooperate and created an obstacle. After the Municipal Court found Fede guilty of the obstruction charge, Fede appealed to the Law Division. The court affirmed the conviction. In fact, when the case made its way to it the Appellate Division, it was further affirmed.
- That said, the Supreme Court decided otherwise and reversed the defendant’s conviction. Why did they disagree with the rulings made by three lower courts?
Supreme Court Ruling
First, the Supreme Court absolutely agreed that the responding officers had the right to enter Fede’s apartment. Without a doubt, domestic violence allegations can be serious and represent a reason for warrantless entry. However, there’s more to the obstruction charge. To be found guilty of obstruction, Fede needed to affirmatively interfere with the officer’s request to enter the apartment. The court suggested that otherwise, the obstruction could mean that someone just didn’t get off the couch and open the door.
It wasn’t as if Fede chain locked the door to keep the officers out. The chain was already in place when the police arrived on the scene. Therefore, there was no physical activity that could be viewed as interference. The bottom line was that Fede’s response did not constitute an affirmative action and he was therefore not guilty of obstructing the administration of law.
At the Law Offices of Anthony Carbone, we keep up to date on changes in the law. With over three decades of dedicated legal experience, we strive for the best results for our clients. Give us a call at 201-829-3805 if you are facing criminal charges. We look forward to working with you!