New Jersey Supreme Court Rules Probable Cause Required for Domestic Violence Warrants for Weapons

In State v. James Hemenway, (A-19-18/081206) (Decided July 24, 2019), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the Domestic Violence Act’s standard for the issuance of search warrant for weapons, particularly in a defendant’s home, could not be “squared with the probable cause requirement of our State and Federal Constitutions.” Accordingly, it held that domestic violence search warrants for weapons must now require a probable cause finding. 

New Jersey Supreme Court Rules Probable Cause Required for Domestic Violence Warrants for Weapons

Facts of State v. Hemenway

In June 2012, D.S. filed a domestic violence complaint against defendant James Hemenway and requested a temporary restraining order (TRO) barring him from having contact with her and members of her family, as well as from possessing “firearms, knives, & [a Taser].” D.S. appeared before a Family Court judge, who asked: “[D]o you have a[n] awareness that he has any weapons?” D.S. said yes and stated that Hemenway kept weapons in his three cars and his apartment. The court entered a TRO and authorized the issuance of a warrant to “search for and seize . . . handguns, knives, switchblades” from Hemenway’s home and three vehicles. The court did not articulate a reasonable cause or probable cause basis for believing that Hemenway possessed firearms or switchblades or that they would be found in the places to be searched.

On June 29, 2012, two Old Bridge police officers advised Hemenway outside his apartment that they possessed a TRO and a warrant to search his residence for weapons. The officers did not allow Hemenway to call his attorney, and Hemenway then refused their order to allow them entry to his apartment. Hemenway was arrested for obstructing the execution of the domestic violence warrant. Officers entered the apartment and observed what appeared to be marijuana and cocaine. Based on that discovery, a detective applied for and received a telephonic search warrant for the residence and the vehicles. The police searched and recovered drugs, bullets, and cash. No handguns or switchblades were found. Defendant was charged with four drug offenses.

The trial court denied Hemenway’s motion to suppress, concluding that the telephonic criminal search warrant application set forth probable cause for the issuance of a warrant to search Hemenway’s residence and that the domestic violence warrant provided an adequate and independent basis for the search of the vehicles. Hemenway appealed, challenging the validity of the domestic violence and telephonic search warrants. The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of Hemenway’s motion to suppress.

New Jersey Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Hemenway

The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed. “[W]e must reverse the denial of Hemenway’s motion to suppress because the domestic violence warrant issued to search his home and cars was not based on the Constitution’s probable cause requirement or even the lesser reasonable cause requirement,” Justice Barry Albin wrote on behalf of the court.

“Combatting domestic violence is an important societal and legislative goal. However, the Domestic Violence Act’s standard for the issuance of an order for the search for weapons, particularly in a defendant’s home, cannot be squared with the probable cause requirement of our State and Federal Constitutions,” Justice Albin wrote. “Accordingly, we now hold that the beneficent goal of protecting domestic violence victims must be accomplished while abiding by well-established constitutional norms.”

According to the New Jersey Supreme Court, when the Family Court issued a TRO against Hemenway and entered an order for the seizure of certain weapons, such as handguns, from his home and cars, it failed to make the “requisite probable cause finding mandated by our constitutional jurisprudence to justify the search.” Accordingly, the search of Hemenway’s home and vehicle were unreasonable under the Federal and State Constitutions. Accordingly, all evidence derived from the searches, including the drugs and cash, must be suppressed.

“Prosecuting domestic violence abusers and protecting victims through the issuance of TROs and search warrants for weapons also can be achieved without weakening fundamental constitutional guarantees,” the court wrote. Justice Albin further explained:

The (family) court should have elicited answers to determine whether (the woman) knew Hemenway possessed a handgun and, if so, her knowledge concerning the location of the weapon. We urge our judges to take the additional time to make an appropriate record before issuing a warrant for the search of a home for weapons.

Going forward, before issuing a warrant to search for weapons under the Domestic Violence Act, a court must find that there is (1) probable cause to believe that an act of domestic violence has been committed by the defendant; (2) probable cause to believe that a search for and seizure of weapons is necessary to protect the life, health or well-being of a victim on whose behalf the relief is sought; and (3) probable cause to believe that the weapons are located in the place to be searched.

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