NJ Supreme Court Rules Hot Pursuit Did Not Justify Warrantless Search

In State v. Bookman, (A-32-21/085775) (Decided August 24, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that police officers were not justified in entering a third party’s home when the subject fled when officers attempt to execute an Automated Traffic System warrant (ATS). The court, however, refused to adopt a bright-line rule providing that an ATS warrant is not sufficient to justify the warrantless entry of a home under the hot pursuit doctrine.

Facts of State v. Bookman

Julian Bell was the subject of “a long-term investigation” for theft. On the evening of November 1, 2017, State Police received a tip that Bell was outside his residence engaged in an apparent drug transaction. The police did not have, or attempt to obtain, a warrant to detain Bell on the alleged narcotics transaction. The sole legal ground to arrest Bell was based upon an ATS warrant, issued by a municipal court on June 29, 2017, for failure to respond to a summons charging him with driving with a suspended driver’s license. Eight officers deployed to the scene at around 1:00 a.m. on November 2. Bell and Bookman were standing outside when the officers arrived; they ran into a neighboring home with officers in pursuit. One officer found Bookman lying face down on the floor with his arms outstretched.

The officer who found Bookman testified that he frisked Bookman and asked whether he had any weapons; Bookman told the officer about a knife and gun in his pockets, which the officer retrieved. Bookman was found guilty of one weapon possession charge for the gun. On appeal, Bookman argued that the officers’ entry into the residence was not justified by the hot pursuit exception to the warrant requirement.

The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of his motion to suppress. According to the appeals court, “Every step taken by the officers in the swiftly unfolding sequence of events was objectively reasonable and lawful.” In reaching its decision, the Appellate Division concluded that the police entry was lawful under the hot pursuit doctrine as explained and applied by our Supreme Court in State v. Jones, 143 N.J. 4 (1995). The appeals court specifically found that the State Police officers were justified in pursuing Bell into the private residence based on the outstanding ATS warrant. In support, the court cited that police officers acting pursuant to a valid arrest warrant have the right to follow a fleeing suspect into a private residence.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Bookman

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and suppressed the handgun the State Police retrieved from Bookman. According to the court, none of the exceptions to the warrant required applied to the circumstances, including the hot pursuit doctrine.

In reaching its decision, the court acknowledged that law enforcement officers have a duty to enforce validly issued arrest warrants without distinction, whether they were issued for minor or serious offenses. However, it also noted that to search for the subject of an arrest warrant in the home of a third party, the police must also obtain a search warrant absent exigent circumstances or consent.

With regard to the applicability of the “hot pursuit” doctrine under which a warrantless entry may be justified to prevent the possible destruction of evidence and the threat of violence by the suspect, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that courts must consider whether, under the totality of the circumstances, the entry was objectively justified.

In this case, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the State Police officers were not entitled to enter the neighboring residence under the hot pursuit doctrine. In support of its conclusion, the court highlighted that the officers knew that the ATS warrant was for a minor traffic offense and had no reason to suspect there was any risk of danger or destruction of evidence relevant to that warrant that may have justified a hot pursuit.

In differentiating the case from State v. Jones, the court noted that the State Police encountered Bell and Bookman based on a planned execution of the ATS warrant. Additionally, any exigency was a direct result of the officers’ decision to unreasonably execute the ATS warrant by: selecting an unreasonable time of the day to execute the warrant (1:00 a.m. in a residential neighborhood); deploying an unreasonable number of officers to execute the traffic warrant arrest; unreasonably pursuing Bookman, a man who was neither named on the ATS warrant nor suspected of being involved in any criminal activity; and unreasonably entering the home of a third party without a warrant.

“Law enforcement officers cannot create the exigencies they later use to undermine the sanctity of one’s home,” Judge Jose L. Fuentes wrote on behalf of the court. “Invocation of the hot pursuit doctrine under these circumstances is a weak attempt to justify this violation of one of our most cherished constitutional rights.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the State’s unsubstantiated claim that this was a “high crime area” to justify the pursuit, search, and detention of the defendant. “First, the State did not present competent evidence illustrating that the relevant area was in fact within a ‘high crime area,’” Judge Fuentes wrote. “Further, the police went to this area specifically because they knew Bell would be there and, therefore, the unsubstantiated and pretextual assertion that this may have been a ‘high crime area’ cannot be used as the basis to justify an otherwise unlawful pursuit, search, and detention of Bookman.” Finally, the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to create a new bright-line rule for ATS warrants. “Although we are disturbed by the manner of execution of this warrant, we decline to adopt a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach to the execution of all ATS arrest warrants because interactions between police officers and the public are inherently unpredictable and may give rise to tragic consequences,” Judge Fuentes wrote.

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