N.J. Supreme Court rules against police who entered home without warrant
Police seeking to arrest one man in Camden on a traffic warrant arrested a second man in his home despite not having a warrant to enter it. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
Police trying to nab someone for a crime can’t use outstanding traffic warrants to evade their constitutional obligation to get a warrant for the indictable offense they suspect, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
In its unanimous decision, the court vacated the conviction of a man, Steven Bookman, who state police arrested in 2017 for a gun offense after they made a middle-of-the-night visit to Camden to arrest a different man for a traffic infraction.
Superior Court Judge Jose L. Fuentes, who’s serving on the Supreme Court temporarily, also chastised police for their “unreasonable” tactics — sending eight officers at 1 a.m. to arrest someone on a four-month-old warrant for a minor traffic offense, chasing Bookman even though he wasn’t named on the warrant nor suspected of a crime, and entering a home without a warrant when Bookman fled there.
Police can pursue a fleeing felony suspect into a home without a warrant when they have probable cause for arrest and they fear the suspect will destroy evidence or hurt someone — a practice protected under what’s known as the “hot pursuit doctrine.” But the pursuit of Bookman didn’t pass muster, Fuentes wrote.
“Law enforcement officers cannot create the exigencies they later use to undermine the sanctity of one’s home,” Fuentes wrote. “Invocation of the hot pursuit doctrine under these circumstances is a weak attempt to justify this violation of one of our most cherished constitutional rights.”
Fuentes also rejected the state’s argument that the chase of Bookman was warranted because they were in a “high-crime area.” In an unrelated ruling last month, the court raised the bar for police stops in such areas, saying police need more than a hunch and a vague claim they’re policing “a high crime area” to stop a suspected lawbreaker.
The ruling overturns lower court decisions allowing the gun found on Bookman to be used as evidence against him.
The target of the arrest warrant that led to Bookman’s conviction was Julian Bell. When police found him and Bookman outside Bell’s home on Nov. 1, 2017, the two men fled into a neighboring rowhouse and police followed them.
Police had been investigating Bell for a string of motorcycle and all-terrain vehicle thefts — unrelated to his outstanding June 2017 arrest warrant for skipping court after he was cited for driving with a suspended license, according to the ruling.
Bookman and his legal team had requested the court to adopt a hard rule barring police from entering a home under the hot pursuit doctrine when executing traffic warrants under what’s known as the automated traffic system. The court declined.
“Although we are disturbed by the manner of execution of this warrant, we decline to adopt a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach to the execution of all ATS arrest warrants because interactions between police officers and the public are inherently unpredictable and may give rise to tragic consequences,” the opinion reads.
Alexander Shalom of the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued the case before the court, applauded the ruling as a win for civil rights. Hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans have outstanding municipal court warrants, often for traffic infractions, with people of color disproportionately impacted, Shalom said. Police shouldn’t use those warrants as an excuse to arrest them for something else, Shalom said.
“Imagine you’ve got someone who’s selling drugs, but you don’t quite have enough probable cause to get a warrant for their arrest. So police say, ‘Well, they have this traffic warrant so I’m going to arrest him on that — and maybe he’ll have drugs in his pocket,” Shalom said. “The court in this case really rejects that as a practice.”
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