Court: Police must face life-threatening danger to search with no warrant

Two cases questioned whether protective sweeps are legal when arrest is outside a home

By: - January 20, 2022 12:33 pm

Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin (Courtesy of New Jersey Courts)

New Jersey police who arrest people outside their homes can’t then enter and search their homes without a warrant, unless there’s a clear potential of life-threatening danger to officers on the scene, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday.

The high court’s decision involves two cases centered on a routine police practice called protective sweeps, when officers search an area to make sure no dangers lurk that could threaten officers’ safety. The court agreed with appellate court rulings suppressing evidence in one case and allowing evidence to be used in the other.

In the opinion, Justice Barry T. Albin wrote certain circumstances should be weighed in determining whether a warrantless home entry is constitutional, including the manner of the arrest, the distance of the arrest from the home, and the reasonableness of the officers’ suspicion that someone inside a home is likely to launch an imminent attack.

“One of the most valued of all constitutional rights is the right to be free from unreasonable searches of one’s home,” Albin wrote. “Entering a home to conduct a protective sweep when an arrest is made outside a dwelling should be the rare circumstance, in light of the special constitutional protections afforded the home … a self- created exigency by the police cannot justify entry into the home or a protective sweep.”

The two cases are out of Passaic and Salem counties. Little Falls police arrested Christopher Radel in 2016 in his driveway as he carried laundry to his car. In 2017, state troopers and officers from the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office arrested Tyler Fuller on the front porch of Keith Terres’ Salem County mobile home, as Fuller fled the trailer.

In both cases, police subsequently went inside the homes and searched them, citing their fear that someone with ill intent could be hiding inside. The homes were empty, but officers found weapons in both homes and drugs in Radel’s. They returned with search warrants and seized the weapons and drugs as evidence against the men, who later fought to suppress the evidence because they said officers obtained it unconstitutionally.

Trial judges denied both men’s requests to suppress the evidence, prompting both to appeal. In Radel’s case, an appeals court deemed the protective sweep unconstitutional and the evidence inadmissible. But in the Terres case, the court agreed the scene was chaotic and officer safety justified an immediate protective sweep. That court affirmed the lower court’s denial to suppress.

Thursday’s Supreme Court opinion affirms both appellate rulings.

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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.

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