State v. Cesar Albert Vargas (A-56-11) (069449)
Argued November 5, 2012 -- Decided March 18, 2013
ALBIN, J., writing for a majority of the Court.
In this appeal, the Court must decide whether, consistent with the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution, the community-caretaking doctrine authorizes the police to conduct a warrantless entry and search of a home to check on the welfare of a resident in the absence of the resident’s consent or an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there is an emergency.
2 Olaya called 9-1-1 and three Vineland police officers were dispatched to the address for a “welfare check.” The officers observed that Vargas’s mailbox was full, his Jaguar was covered in dust, and the car’s tires were deflated. No one answered when the officers knocked on Vargas’s door. The officers contacted dispatch and confirmed that no “calls for service” – such as a call for an ambulance or the police – had come from or been directed to Vargas’s apartment. The officers ultimately entered Vargas’s apartment because they said they “had reasons to fear for his safety.” They found no one home and no signs of foul play. In the living room they saw a six-to-eight-inch jar containing what appeared to be marijuana. Olaya opened kitchen cabinets and drawers and found what “appeared to be two canning jars full of marijuana.” A warrant was then secured to search the apartment.
Vargas was indicted for various crimes involving money laundering, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, unlawful possession of firearms, and other offenses. Vargas moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that the police entered and searched his apartment in violation of the warrant requirement. The trial court agreed and suppressed all evidence seized. The court specifically rejected the State’s argument that the community-caretaking doctrine justified the warrantless search, finding that there was no objectively reasonable basis to believe that Vargas’s life or well-being, or the community’s safety was in jeopardy. The trial court determined that there were no “exigent circumstances” to justify the warrantless search of Vargas’s home.
In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division reversed, holding that the warrantless search conformed to the community-caretaking doctrine, which it found had been extended to home searches, and that the search was based on “a legitimate concern for [Vargas’s] welfare.” The Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion for leave to appeal. 209 N.J. 99 (2012).
HELD: The community-caretaking doctrine is not a justification for the warrantless entry and search of a home in the absence of some form of an objectively reasonable emergency.
1. “The right of the people to be secure in their . . . houses . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures” is an essential guarantee of both the Fourth Amendment and the State Constitution. The warrant requirement protects an individual in his home from official intrusion whether the purpose of the search is to further a criminal investigation or the government’s enforcement of an administrative regulation. Because a warrantless search of a home is presumptively invalid, the State bears the burden of establishing that such a search falls within one of the few “‘well-delineated exceptions’ to the warrant requirement.” State v. Frankel, 179 N.J. 586, 598 (1978). (pp. 9-15)
2. Courts consider Cady v. Dombrowski to be the origin of the community-caretaking doctrine as an exception to the warrant requirement. 413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973). Although the Supreme Court in Cady recognized law enforcement’s “community caretaking functions” in the context of an automobile search, it never suggested that community-caretaking responsibilities constituted a wholly new exception to the warrant requirement that would justify the warrantless search of a home. Indeed, the Cady Court distinguished between automobile and home searches. The United States Supreme Court has not referenced “community caretaking functions” as an exception to the warrant requirement outside of an automobile search. The United States Supreme Court has never spoken of a community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement that would allow the warrantless entry of a home absent some exigency. (pp. 15-20)
3. At first, the New Jersey Supreme Court narrowly construed Cady. In one case, the Court concluded that although the police were acting in a community-caretaking role in Cady, the validity of the warrantless search there was saved by exigent circumstances. In another, the Court specifically found that the community-caretaking doctrine could not be invoked to justify the warrantless entry into a private residence. Since then, the Court has applied the community-caretaking doctrine outside of the automobile-impoundment context. But when it has done so to justify a warrantless entry or search, the factual scenarios involved exigent circumstances – circumstances requiring immediate police action. Without the presence of consent or some species of exigent circumstances, the community-caretaking doctrine is not a basis for the warrantless entry into and search of a home. (pp. 21-26)
4. The United States Courts of Appeals have split on whether the community-caretaking doctrine can justify a warrantless search of a home, but no circuit court suggests that the warrantless entry of a home is permissible in the absence of some form of exigency. The present case comes before the Supreme Court because New Jersey case law has blurred the distinction between the community-caretaking and emergency-aid doctrines. In performing community-caretaking tasks, police officers must comply with the dictates of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State Constitution. However, in carrying out their community-caretaking responsibilities, police officers may not have time to secure “a warrant when emergent circumstances arise and an immediate search is required to preserve life or property.”State v. Edmonds, 211 N.J. 117, 141 (2012). In such circumstances, a warrant is not required to conduct a search. (p. 26-31)
5. Under this State’s jurisprudence – outside of the car-impoundment context – warrantless searches justified in the name of the community-caretaking doctrine have involved some form of exigent or emergent circumstances. In this case, the trial court applied the correct legal standard and sufficient credible evidence in the record supports its decision. The police did not have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency threatening life or limb justified the warrantless entry into Vargas’s apartment. The Appellate Division erred by concluding that the community-caretaking doctrine justified the warrantless search of Vargas’s home, even in the absence of a “compelling need for immediate action.” The seizure of evidence from Vargas’s home violated the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State’s Constitution and must be suppressed. (pp. 31-37)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.