New Jersey Supreme Court again affirms public’s civil rights in warrantless police searches

By: - May 3, 2023 5:49 pm

Police cannot search someone's property or belongings without a warrant unless "exigent circumstances" exist, the N.J. Supreme Court ruled in an opinion written by Justice Anne Patterson. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Police cannot search someone’s property or belongings without a warrant unless lives would be endangered or evidence destroyed during the time it would take to secure a warrant, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a decision affirming what’s known as the “exigent-circumstances exception” to the warrant requirement.

Justice Anne Patterson, writing for a unanimous court, vacated the gun conviction of a Monmouth County man who fought to have evidence suppressed after Highlands police in July 2021 seized two handguns, ammunition, and a police badge stashed in a bag in a storage trailer that officers had no warrant to search.

Officers had gone to Anthony Miranda’s home after his live-in girlfriend told police he assaulted and threatened her and brandished firearms in front of her and her two adult children, according to the ruling.

The officers obtained a search warrant for the couple’s home and arrested Miranda, taking him to the police department for processing and a transfer to the county jail, according to the decision. After finding no guns in the home, one officer asked the girlfriend if he could search a Jeep and storage buildings near the couple’s home.

While the girlfriend’s consent cleared the way for officers to search those additional places that the couple both used, Patterson wrote, her consent did not empower officers to search Miranda’s closed drawstring bag that was inside a storage trailer.

Prosecutors had argued officers could open and search the bag because the domestic violence allegations and firearms created exigent circumstances. State law allows warrantless searches in exigent circumstances, including if a suspect is likely to flee, hurt someone, or destroy evidence and if police are in “hot pursuit” of a suspect.

But Patterson wrote that none of those circumstances existed in Miranda’s case because he was under arrest and heading to county jail.

“He was therefore not in a position to retrieve, use, or conceal the weapons pending the issuance of a warrant, 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,” Patterson wrote.

While items “in plain view” also are an exception to the warrant requirement, Patterson wrote, the guns in question were in a bag and not in plain view.

The decision reversed trial and appellate rulings in which judges upheld the search and seizure. Patterson ordered the case returned to trial court for further proceedings.

Miranda was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon.

The ruling is at least the third in which the court underscored the rights of people subjected to warrantless searches.

In March, the court decreed that police stopping motorists to investigate crimes cannot search their cars without a warrant unless the circumstances that sparked their suspicion were “unforeseeable and spontaneous.”

In January 2022, the court ruled that 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.

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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.