NJ Supreme Court Clarifies When Police Can Conduct Warrantless Search of House After Arrest Is Made Outside

In State v. Christopher Radel (A-44-20) and State v. Keith Terres (A-45-20) (Decided January 20, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that when an arrest occurs outside a home, the police may not enter the dwelling or conduct a protective sweep in the absence of a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a person or persons are present inside and pose an imminent threat to the officers’ safety.

Facts of the Cases

In both cases, police officers, armed with arrest warrants, apprehended the suspects outside of homes — defendant Christopher Radel as he carried laundry to his car parked in his driveway, and Tyler Fuller as he was brought to the ground on the front porch of defendant Keith Terres’s mobile home from which he had fled.

In the Radel case, the officer in charge ordered a protective sweep of 81 Browertown for purposes of officer safety because there were weapons and other persons “potentially on the property.” Sergeant Robert Prall came to that conclusion because two vehicles were parked in the driveway; the home’s windows had coverings, obstructing a view into the residence; the blue-jacketed person the other sergeant observed in the backyard may not have been the same person who exited the front door; and the order directed the officers to retrieve the firearms.

During the approximately five-minute sweep, no one was found inside. In carrying out the sweep, however, the officers observed in plain view imitation firearms, butterfly knives, hatchets, bows and arrows, a ballistic vest, simulated police identification badges, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a glass pipe, and a safe capable of storing firearms.

In the Terres case, police seeking to arrest Tyler Fuller struggled with and arrested two other men, one of whom informed them that Fuller might be in Keith Terre’s trailer with another male. Once there, the detectives split up to cover different sides of the trailer. Peering through one of the trailer’s windows, one observed Fuller and told him to get to the ground and that he was under arrest. Disobeying that command, Fuller ran through the front door. He was intercepted by an officer, who got Fuller face down and handcuffed on the trailer’s deck within five feet of the door and attempted to pull a hypodermic needle from Fuller’s pants pocket.

Another detective shouted into the trailer, commanding that anyone inside was to come to the front door. With no response, he stepped into the trailer and saw a cross bow hanging inside and arrows scattered about. He conducted a quick search of each room for the presence of the other man mentioned earlier. During the sweep, the detective observed behind a washer and dryer a three- to four-foot wide and three-foot deep hole in the floor partially covered by plywood. The hole appeared large enough for a person to hide under the residence. When the detective looked into the hole, he saw a handgun and the barrels of either shotguns or rifles. He did not touch any of the weapons. The sweep of the trailer lasted approximately three to five minutes.

The trial judges presiding over those cases denied defendants’ motions to suppress the evidence uncovered during the protective sweeps. In the Radel case, the Appellate Division reversed, finding that the protective sweep did not pass constitutional muster. In the Terres case, the Appellate Division affirmed, concluding that officer safety justified an immediate protective sweep.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s decisions. “The two cases before us present bookends — one in which a protective sweep was not warranted, the Radel case, and the other in which a sweep was constitutionally justified, the Terres case,” Justice Barry Albin wrote on behalf of the unanimous court.

The New Jersey Supreme Court first held that “when an arrest occurs outside a home, the police may not enter the dwelling or conduct a protective sweep in the absence of a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a person or persons are present inside and pose an imminent threat to the officers’ safety.”

“Entering a home to conduct a protective sweep when an arrest is made outside a dwelling should be the rare circumstance, in light of the special constitutional protections afforded the home,” Justice Albin explained. “Nevertheless, when objective facts provide the police with a reasonable and articulable suspicion that their lives may be placed in imminent danger by a person or persons inside the home, officers will be justified in entering the dwelling to carry out a protective sweep to safeguard their lives.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to explain that “[t]his sensible balancing of the fundamental right to privacy in one’s home and the compelling interest in officer safety will depend on an objective assessment of the particular circumstances in each case.” According to the court, some factors that may be considered in determining whether a protective sweep is justified when an arrest is made outside the home are (1) whether the police have information that others are in the home with access to weapons and a potential reason to use them or otherwise pose a dangerous threat; (2) the imminence of any potential threat; (3) the proximity of the arrest to the home; (4) whether the suspect was secured or resisted arrest and prolonged the police presence at the scene; and (5) any other relevant circumstances. Entry into the home and a protective sweep cannot be based on a self-created exigency by the police.

The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to apply the above principles to determine whether the protective sweeps in the Radel and Terres were constitutional. In Radel, the court found that the protective sweep was not justified. In support, the court noted that the police executed a controlled arrest in the driveway — a distance from the home’s entrance — with watchful eyes on the front and rear doors of the house. It also emphasized that officers did not face a discernible threat and had no specific information that another person was in the house, nor was there information from which they could reasonably infer that someone inside posed an imminent danger. “Nothing unforeseeable occurred at the scene; no danger arose that mandated an entry of the home without a warrant,” Justice Albin wrote.

On the other hand, in Terres, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that there was a reasonable basis for entry into the home based on a “very real and potential danger.” As Justice Albin explained, the officers on the scene faced “unexpected and fast-evolving circumstances that signaled danger and the need for prompt action to safeguard their lives.” He added; “The officers received a warning to be careful and that another male was with Fuller in Terres’s trailer — a clear signal of a potential threat; they had been told that Fuller was staying in a building where loose bullets and shell casings were observed; Fuller fled the trailer when he was arrested within feet of the open front door; and the situation was fluid and not stabilized as Trooper Hershey attempted to retrieve a hypodermic needle from Fuller’s pocket.”

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