NJ Supreme Court Rules: Landlord Tipoffs Cannot Replace a Warrant

June 4, 2015 · by rosenblumlawfirm · in

According to a recent New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, police must obtain a warrant to search a private home, even when a landlord, plumber, electrician or other houseguest spots drugs, firearms, or other potentially illegal activity inside. In the unanimous ruling, the Court reiterated that the constitutional right to privacy is strongest when it comes to private residences.

Police Searching a Home

The NJ Supreme Court has overturned a lower court ruling that a tip from a landlord is sufficient for police to conduct a search. A warrant must still be issued. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

“Inviting one’s landlord into an apartment does not create an ‘open house,” Joseph A. Pace and Lawrence S. Lustberg, two attorneys who participated in the case for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, wrote. “It certainly does not excuse the police from having to get a warrant before entering, as the Constitution requires.”

Under the ‘third-party intervention’ doctrine, if a private person conducts a search, the search does not apply to the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure. Here, the question was whether the ‘third-party intervention’ doctrine would extend warrantless searches to include private homes.

The issue arose in 2009, when a landlord and a plumber entered the apartment of Evangeline James, a resident who asked for their help fixing a water leak. James was not home at the time the landlord and plumber went in to make the repairs. Once inside, they found drugs inside an open drawer and on top of the nightstand. The landlord and plumber called the police, who entered the home without a warrant and subsequently found weapons, drugs and other paraphernalia.

The Monmouth County grand jury indicted James and her boyfriend, Ricky Wright, for drug offenses and second-degree possession of a firearm. After being sentenced with a 15-year prison sentence, Wright challenged the evidence used against him, discovered as a result of the warrantless search.

Two lower courts upheld the search, and some federal courts have held that police do not need a warrant to search what private parties have been allowed to report. However, the NJ Supreme Court ruled that allowing such a broad exception to the warrant requirement went far beyond the intended scope of the ‘third-party doctrine’, which is only intended to uphold the warrantless search of items like UPS packages, not entire homes.

“Inviting a plumber or dinner guest into a private home does not carry with it an invitation to the police,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote. “Homes are filled with intimate, private details about people’s lives that are ordinarily free from government scrutiny.”

The Court has also issued groundbreaking rulings that imposed warrant requirements on police seeking to obtain a suspect’s Internet browsing history and cellphone records.

If you recently were charged with a crime in New Jersey, contact The Rosenblum Law Firm today at 888-815-3649 for a free consultation.