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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Police Cannot Search Home Based on Noise Complaint. State v. Kaltner 210 NJ 114 (2012)

State v. Kaltner 210 NJ 114 (2012) 

The Court considers whether the trial court correctly suppressed drug evidence found in a bedroom during a warrantless search of a residence by police officers who were responding to noise complaints.

The defense disputed the officers’ version of the events, arguing that the party was small, and that the officers searched the entire house and forcibly entered the bedrooms, including Kaltner’s, by kicking down locked bedroom doors. The judge found credible Officer Camacho’s testimony about the size and scope of the party and the volume of noise. The judge also found that the unidentified adult male who answered the door invited the officers at least into the common area of the home. However, the judge suppressed the drug evidence after concluding that the officers unlawfully extended their search beyond entry into the first floor main living area. The judge explained that any number of methods could have been employed by the officers to locate a resident of the premises that would not have required invading the private areas of the home.

The Appellate Division affirmed. 420 N.J. Super. 524 (App. Div. 2011). The panel rejected the State’s argument that by hosting a large party defendant had no expectation of privacy in the home or, in the alternative, that the officers acted reasonably in their community caretaking function to abate the noise nuisance. The panel explained that Kaltner had a reasonable expectation of privacy despite the party, which was not open to the public, therefore a search warrant grounded in probable cause was needed unless an exception to the warrant requirement applied. The panel agreed with the motion judge that the police officers’ initial entry into the premises in response to the noise complaint was lawful. The question, however, was whether, after their legitimate entry, the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement justified the officers’ conduct in fanning out in search of those in control of the premises in an attempt to abate the noise nuisance.

The panel explained that the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement requires a case-by-case, fact-sensitive analysis. The relevant question focuses on the objective reasonableness of the police action under the circumstances, and requires that the court balance the nature of the intrusion necessary to handle the perceived threat to the community caretaking concern, the seriousness of the underlying harm to be averted, and the relative importance of the community caretaking concern. The panel concluded that the police action in this case was not constitutionally permitted. Although the officers’ entry into the dwelling was initially justified, their subsequent action in fanning out and conducting, in essence, a full-blown search of the home was not reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the entry in the first place, nor was it carried out in a manner consistent with the factors supporting the entry’s initial legitimacy. As explained by the motion judge, the objective of noise abatement could have been achieved well short of the officers’ full-scale search. For example, given the number of officers present and the fact that the offending noise emanated from the crowd itself, the officers could easily have dispersed the partiers.

After balancing the competing interests, including the important privacy interest in one’s home, the breadth and extent of the invasion of the entire premises, the limited nature of the community caretaking concern, and the relatively low threat posed in light of the available less-drastic options, the panel concluded that Officer Camacho was not lawfully in the hallway outside Kaltner’s bedroom when he viewed the evidence, and the plain-view doctrine did not excuse his entry into the bedroom and seizure of the drugs.

HELD: The decision of the Appellate Division is affirmed substantially for the reasons expressed in Judge Parrillo’s opinion. Because the police officers’ warrantless search of the home after they were called to address a noise complaint was not objectively reasonable, the evidence obtained during the search was properly suppressed.
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.