22 Police can’t search apartment after DV 911 call if no danger.
State v. Edmonds 211 NJ 117 (2012)
In responding to a 9-1-1 report of possible domestic violence, once the police officers found that there was inadequate evidence to corroborate the 9-1-1 report and determined that the parties’ safety was not an issue, there was no objectively reasonable basis to search the residence under either the community- caretaking or emergency-aid exceptions to the warrant requirement and the evidence obtained through the warrantless search must be suppressed.
1. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution guarantee the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, and state that no warrants shall issue except upon probable cause. Under New Jersey case law, warrantless searches, particularly of a home, are presumptively invalid and the State must establish that such a search was justified by an exception to the warrant requirement, such as the emergency-aid doctrine or the community-caretaking doctrine.
2. The emergency-aid doctrine permits officials to enter a dwelling without a warrant to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury. The three-part test for determining whether a warrantless search is justified by the emergency-aid doctrine was set forth in State v. Frankel. The test inquired whether 1) the official had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency required him to provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life or prevent serious injury; 2) the official’s primary motivation for entry into the home was to render assistance, not to find and seize evidence; and 3) there was a reasonable nexus between the emergency and the area to be searched. Because the United States Supreme Court has held that the subjective motivation of a police officer is irrelevant and the appropriate question is whether, viewing the circumstances objectively, the actions of the officer were justified, the Court aligns New Jersey’s jurisprudence with federal law and eliminates the second part of the test, leaving only the two objective inquiries. The Court cautions that the emergency-aid doctrine, particularly when applied to the entry of a home, must be limited to the reasons and objectives that prompted the need for immediate action.
3. Here, officers responded to a 9-1-1 report of possible domestic violence involving a gun at Richardson’s home. Neither the 9-1-1 caller’s identity nor the information he provided were corroborated, and the United States Supreme Court has cautioned that there is no automatic firearm exception to the established reliability analysis of an anonymous tip. Reviewing the facts of the case, the Court finds that police had a duty to look behind the denials by Richardson while her son remained potentially in jeopardy in the apartment, and it does not question the officers’ decision to enter the home to assure the boy’s safety. The Court assumes that the detention and frisk of Edmonds also were proper. However, the Court finds that once there was no longer an objective basis to believe that an emergency was at hand, the privacy interests of the home were entitled to the highest degree of respect. At that point, the police needed to obtain a search warrant to proceed any further. The State did not overcome the presumption that the warrantless search of the residence was unreasonable.
4. In determining whether the community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement justified the search of Richardson’s home, the Court acknowledges that police officers provide a wide range of social services outside of their traditional law enforcement and criminal investigatory roles, including protecting the vulnerable from harm and preserving property. In performing these tasks, there is not time to acquire a warrant when emergent circumstances arise and an immediate search is required to preserve life or property. In Bogan, the Court found justified by the community-caretaking exception an officer’s decision to enter an apartment in which an alleged sexual assault of a minor had occurred for the purpose of speaking on the telephone with the parent of a child who answered the door. However, Bogan did not involve a search for evidence or a weapon in a home. Here, the officers investigated and failed to corroborate the domestic violence report, thereby fulfilling their community-caretaking function. If the officers wished to search the apartment for a gun, they had to apply for a warrant supported by probable cause. The findings of the trial court that the police conducted a home search that exceeded the permissible boundaries of the community-caretaking doctrine are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record.