Appellate court upholds public’s rights in police search warrant case

By: - November 4, 2021 6:55 am

It is unreasonable for police to ignore knock-and-announce requirements in search warrants, the ruling says. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Even if police officers have a search warrant, they cannot use evidence obtained during the search if they violate a requirement that they first knock and announce themselves, a New Jersey appeals court ruled Wednesday.

Such behavior violates the constitutional rights of citizens to be free of unreasonable search and seizure, and police shouldn’t “profit” from it, Judge Douglas M. Fasciale wrote for the three-judge appellate panel.

“It is simply objectively unreasonable — without justification — for police to ignore a knock-and-announce requirement contained in a warrant that they requested and obtained,” Fasciale said. “Ignoring the requirement contravenes the search and seizure rights of New Jersey residents.”

The ruling centered on the “exclusionary rule,” which bars the government from using evidence gathered in violation of the Constitution.

In the case in question, Middlesex County detectives orchestrated three controlled buys between a confidential informant and a suspected drug dealer and then went to court to get a search warrant. Police can get a no-knock warrant if they persuade a judge it’s needed to prevent the destruction of evidence or protect officers’ safety. But in this case, detectives got a warrant that required them to knock and announce themselves.

Instead, they strolled in the unlocked door and said “hello” in a “normal tone,” according to the ruling. When the suspect’s girlfriend — partially naked in bed upstairs — called, “Babe?” the detectives climbed the stairs without responding, greeted her with “How you doing, what’s going on?” — and then announced themselves as police, Fasciale wrote. The woman was “disoriented by the encounter,” according to the ruling.

The officers’ behavior was a “flagrant violation” of the warrant’s knock-and-announce requirement, Fasciale wrote. The judge affirmed a lower court’s ruling that drugs seized during the search therefore must be suppressed, because the detectives violated the couple’s constitutional rights.

The state Attorney General’s Office had argued that suppressing evidence in this case was “counterproductive” because detectives would have eventually seized the evidence anyway even if they had knocked and announced themselves.

But the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey both argued in amicus briefs that the suppression of evidence is the only thing effective enough to deter police from such constitutional violations and vindicate the rights of people victimized by such misconduct.

Fasciale apparently agreed, noting in the ruling that the state’s Constitution provides more expansive protections against unreasonable searches and seizures than the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

“We have an obligation to ensure those protections are not eroded through the abandonment of the deterrence provided by the exclusionary rule,” he wrote.

An ACLU attorney applauded the ruling.

“We think the court got it right,” said Alexander Shalom, the ACLU-NJ’s director of Supreme Court advocacy. “When the judge orders police to knock and announce before they enter a private residence, when they don’t do that, there must be real consequences.”

Otherwise, Shalom added, “it would just give license to police officers to flout the requirement.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.