Criminal law is certainly an important part of the study of business law, and Fourth Amendment questions always seem to come up in class. Students are very interested in learning about when the police can search a person’s car, office or home, or when and where can they arrest someone. Generally, police need a warrant either to search a person’s property or to arrest, unless it falls within a constitutional exception.
Most students do not know that there is a difference between an arrest warrant and a search warrant. An arrest warrant is an order by the court directing a sheriff, constable or police officer to find and arrest a person who is wanted for a crime. In contrast, a search warrant permits a law enforcement officer to search a person’s place of residence or other location for evidence of a crime. An arrest warrant, however, does not permit the police to search a home or building for a person where the police reasonably believes the person named in the arrest warrant may be found without the consent of the owner. The question then becomes whether there are any other times police may enter certain areas of a third-party home and search for a person even though they are only acting pursuant to an arrest warrant.
In the New Jersey Appellate Division decision, State v. Craft, 425 N.J. Super. 546 (App. Div. 2012), Judge Graves held that exigent circumstances permitted the police to enter a bedroom of a third-party home to arrest defendant for a shooting even though they were operating solely under the authority of an arrest warrant. The facts are as follows.
The Newark Police Department’s Fugitive Apprehension Team is responsible to dispatch officers to certain addresses where fugitives may be found based on certain intelligence. James Craft was wanted for a shooting. Officers arrived at the location noted in the arrest warrant. It was a three-family dwelling located on South 13th Street. The police believed that defendant was residing there with family on the second-floor.
The front door to the residence was open, and the police proceeded to the second floor. The officers were in plain clothes, but at least one of them was wearing a badge around his neck. Defendant’s mother opened the door and permitted the police to enter. The officers told defendant’s mother that they had a warrant to arrest her son. Defendant’s mother told the police that her son was not there, but offered to call him on her cell phone. Upon dialing the number, the police heard a phone ringing behind a bedroom door. The officers believed it was defendant’s cell phone ringing and that he would most likely be in the bedroom.
When they opened the bedroom door, they found defendant attempting to escape. The police testified they saw defendant drop a handgun as he climbed through the window. They also discovered five vials of cocaine in plain view on the top of a dresser. Defendant was arrested and charged. The trial court suppressed the evidence finding that the “coincidence of a phone ringing” was insufficient evidence to justify entry into the bedroom without a search warrant and that the police did not have an “objectively reasonable belief” that “defendant both resided at and would be found at” his mother’s apartment.
On appeal, the court reversed, holding that “there was no constitutional violation by the police, and it was error to suppress the items that were seized. The arrest warrant provided probable cause for defendant’s arrest; the officers entered the apartment with [defendant’s mother’s consent]; and [the police] had reason to believe defendant was present in an adjoining room when a cell phone began ringing after [defendant’s mother] called her son. In addition, the officers knew the arrest warrant was for ‘a shooting’ and, therefore, defendant was potentially dangerous. Under these circumstances, there was a compelling need for immediate action to apprehend defendant, and it was impracticable for the officers to obtain a search warrant. Thus, their entry into the bedroom was objectively reasonable, and the items seized were in plain view.”
Here, the exigency to protect persons inside the home from being shot by a potentially armed individual excused the police from failing to consider the possible “coincidence” of the phone ring. According to one of the officers, upon hearing the phone ring at the time defendant’s mother dialed, he reasoned since people generally stay close to their cell phones, he would find defendant next to his. As a result, the search into the bedroom was reasonable.