New Jersey Supreme Court holds police entry into defendant’s home without search warrant was justified under the emergency-aid doctrine.

On July 20, 2015, in the case State v. Evan Reece, the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed a criminal law question, whether police officers’ warrantless entry into defendant’s home was justified under the emergency-aid doctrine. The police were notified that their dispatcher had a dropped 9-1-1 call from the home – a call to the emergency number was disconnected.

The Supreme Court cited Article I, Section 7 of the New Jersey Constitution, similar to the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which assures “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue except upon probable cause . . . .” Thus, as a general matter, “police officers must obtain a warrant from a neutral judicial officer before searching a person’s property.” State v. Deluca, 168 N.J. 626, 631 (2001).

The Supreme Court continued, “In recognition of our strong policy against warrantless searches and seizures, the burden falls upon the State to prove a warrantless search was justified by one of the ‘specifically established and well-delineated exceptions’ to the warrant requirement. Police officers are entitled to conduct a warrantless search when the search is supported by ‘a known exception to the warrant requirement.’ ” State v. Eckel, 185 N.J. 523, 539 (2006).”

The exception to the warrant requirement at issue in this case is the emergency aid doctrine, an exception “derived from the commonsense understanding that exigent circumstances may require public safety officials, such as the police, firefighters, or paramedics, to enter a dwelling without a warrant for the purpose of protecting or preserving life, or preventing serious injury.”

The Supreme Court, citing their earlier on point decision in the case State v. Edmonds, applied a two-part test in determining whether the emergency-aid doctrine justifies a warrantless search:

1) the officer had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency requires that he provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury and

2) there was a reasonable nexus between the emergency and the area or places to be searched.

The Supreme Court explained the first prong asks “whether the officer was able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrants his entry into defendant’s home under the emergency aid doctrine.”

The presumption that an emergency exists when there is a dropped 9-1-1 call “may be dispelled by any number of simple explanations given by the homeowner to the responding officer.” For instance, a parent “may explain that her child, who appears at the door with her, impishly dialed the number”; or “a resident, who otherwise raises no suspicions, may state that he intended to call 4-1-1 but pushed the wrong digit.”

Courts applying this presumptive emergency “must weigh the competing values at stake, the privacy interests of the home versus the interest in acting promptly to render potentially life-saving assistance to a person who may be incapacitated.”

As usual in many areas of law, and certainly in 4th Amendment search and seizure law, facts matter. A call to 9-1-1, under New Jersey law, can result in a warrantless search of the residence the call is tracked to, if the facts show the Police Officer had a reasonable belief an emergent situation was taking place inside the home.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding criminal law, search and seizure law or other areas of law, please call Jay Weinberg at the Law Office of Jay Weinberg for a consultation.