NJ Supreme Court Clarifies Test for Delayed Searches Incident to an Arrest

NJ Supreme Court Clarifies Test for Delayed Searches Incident to an Arrest

In State v. Joao C. Torres (A-15-22/086812) (Decided May 4, 2023), the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed when law enforcement may conduct warrantless searches of a person incident to an arrest. It adopted the two-factor test set forth in State v. Lentz, 463 N.J. Super. 54, 70 (App. Div. 2020), under which both (1) the delay itself and (2) the scope of the search must be objectively reasonable.

Facts of State v. Torres

While investigating an axe murder, police officers apprehended defendant Joao Torres (defendant or Torres) and confiscated his clothing, including a sweatshirt, at the police station. The confiscation began about three hours after defendant was taken into custody, following an interview during which he made incriminating statements connecting him to the homicide. During the interview, the officers noticed defendant picking at his fingers and rubbing his clothing. The lead detective also observed what his report described as possible biological evidence visible on defendant’s sweatshirt.

That evening, the State presented an after-hours application for a search warrant to an emergent duty judge. The police seized defendant’s sweatshirt and other garments before the judge approved the warrant, out of concern that dried blood or other biological evidence might dissipate.

Laboratory testing thereafter confirmed that the sweatshirt contained incriminating traces of the victim’s blood. Defendant moved to suppress the sweatshirt evidence, arguing its warrantless confiscation was unconstitutional. After a hearing, the judge denied the motion. Defendant entered a guilty plea. He then appealed, arguing that “the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress the evidence seized as a result of the warrantless strip search.”

The Appellate Division held that the search was not a strip search but remanded “for more explicit findings of fact and conclusions of law” to justify the warrantless seizure. On remand, the trial court issued an amplified written opinion holding that the seizure of defendant’s clothing was valid as a search incident to arrest under the totality of the circumstances. The Appellate Division affirmed.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Torres

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. In so ruling, the court adopted the two-factor test set forth in State v. Lentz, 463 N.J. Super. 54, 70 (App. Div. 2020), which authorizes delayed warrantless searches of a person incident to that person’s arrest so long as both (1) the delay itself and (2) the scope of the search were objectively reasonable.

“The Lentz standard protects, on the one hand, individual privacy rights while furthering, on the other hand, important governmental interests in public safety and the gathering of evidence for the prosecution of crimes,” the court wrote. Accordingly, it further found that the test satisfies the Fourth Amendment and comports with Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution.

In this case, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the totality of circumstances establishes satisfied the reasonableness standard. In support, the court cited officers’ observation and video footage showing that defendant appeared to be removing some substance from his fingers and rubbing his clothing while he was being interviewed, as well as the risk that biological evidence would dissipate during the delay while the warrant application was processed.

“Here, the police had a reasonable basis to think defendant had a motive to destroy incriminating biological evidence and was deliberately trying to pick blood or other biological material off his fingers and clothes. Even if he wasn’t doing so intentionally, and he was instead only fidgeting as the defense submits, the fact remains that defendant’s conduct could have been destroying critical evidence in a homicide case,” the court wrote. “It was surely reasonable for the police to take steps to preserve that evidence after defendant’s statements furnished probable cause that he had killed Ernst.”

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