Plaintiff May Sue Detectives Under New Jersey Civil Rights Act for Securing Premises Without Warrant

By Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

Two members of the State Police entered plaintiff Denise Brown’s apartment searching for evidence of a home invasion they believed had been committed by her boyfriend. They were looking for a stolen piece of jewelry (a locket) they suspected he gave to her. However, they did not have a warrant or her consent and entered her home to “secure the apartment” while they obtained a warrant. In Brown v. State of New Jersey, 2015 N.J. Super. LEXIS 154 (App. Div. Sept. 11, 2015), Brown sued the State Police and the officers for violating her state constitutional rights under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.

The case was tried and a jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants. Brown appealed the denial of her JNOV (judgment notwithstanding verdict), claiming that she was entitled to a judgment because it was undisputed that the police seized and entered her residence without a warrant, consent, or exigent circumstances. In a published decision, the Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal as to the State based upon sovereign immunity.

However, the court reversed as to the troopers and remanded the case for a trial as to damages. The court found that it was undisputed that the troopers enteing the plaintiff’s residence before obtaining a warrant was unlawful as a matter of law.

The Appellate Division noted a “profound misunderstanding” as to the narrow scope of the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. The court found that the testimony established beyond any doubt that the detectives’ entry into Brown’s home violated the plaintiff’s rights.

Applying the factors for exigent circumstances, the court found they were absent. The troopers were not confronted with any immediate and urgent circumstances. They did not believe that Brown was destroying or removing evidence until they told her they were looking for the locket.

The Appellate Division found it “hard to imagine a scenario more unreasonable than the police telling someone not suspected of any crime that the police wish to search her home for specific evidence and, when she declines, claiming their warrantless entry is justified by her possible destruction of the evidence they just revealed to him.” Because the exigent circumstances the troopers offered as justification for proceeding without a warrant were inadequate as a matter of law, they cannot justify the warrantless entry into plaintiff’s home. Thus, the Appellate Division concluded that the trial court erred in submitting this case to the jury because the detectives’ own testimony made it clear beyond any doubt that the entry into the plaintiff’s residence before securing a warrant violated her constitutional rights.