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NJ Supreme Court Clarifies “Plain View” Warrant Exception

Written by William H. Pandos, Esq.

Historically, New Jersey has provided more protections against “unreasonable” governmental searches and seizures than are required by the Federal Constitution.  However, the New Jersey Supreme Court has signaled a move toward adopting more permissive federal standards.  Just last year, the Court retreated from the warrant requirement for motor vehicle searches, allowing probable cause alone to justify searches on our roadways.  State v. Witt, 223 N.J. 409 (2015).  More recently, the Court adopted the federal standard for a different search warrant exception that carries much broader implications.  State v. Xiomara Gonzales (2016)

Both the New Jersey and Federal Constitutions protect against “unreasonable searches and seizures” of persons or property.  Police must first obtain a warrant, supported by probable cause, to perform most searches of private property.  However, the United States Supreme Court has defined several exceptions to the warrant requirement, including the motor vehicle exception followed in Witt, supra, and the “plain view” exception.  Under the following circumstances, a police officer may seize evidence in his or her plain view without a warrant: (1) where the police officer is lawfully in the area where he observed the evidence; and (2) where the evidence is readily identifiable as contraband.  Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128 (1990).  New Jersey additionally required the discovery of evidence in plain view to be inadvertent.  State v. Bruzzese, 94 N.J. 210 (1983). 

In Xiomara Gonzales, supra, the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office was conducting surveillance on a suspected drug-distribution operation.  The police received information that Ms. Gonzales was going to make a large drug transaction at a target location.  The surveillance team observed Ms. Gonzales exchange packages at two different locations, and wiretaps intercepted communications consistent with narcotics transactions.  The police followed Ms. Gonzales as she drove away, and waited for her to commit several traffic violations before pulling her over.  As police approached the car, they noticed two shopping bags had spilled onto the rear floorboard, revealing bricks of heroin. 

At trial, Ms. Gonzales’ attorney attempted to suppress that evidence, arguing that the plain view discovery of heroin bricks was not inadvertent as New Jersey law requires.  Instead, the police knew they were likely to find narcotics in Ms. Gonzales’ vehicle.  On appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the suppression of evidence was denied.  The Court redefined the plain view warrant exception, opting to follow the federal standard.  Accordingly, inadvertent discovery of contraband is no longer a predicate for a warrantless plain view seizure of evidence.  This ruling not only applies to motor vehicle searches, but also extends to private residences and beyond.

 

 

William H. Pandos is an Associate Attorney with Gebhardt & Kiefer, PC.