NJ Supreme Court Rules Warrantless Boarding House Search Violated Constitution

In State v. Louis V. Williams, (A-40-19/083400) (Decided November 2, 2020), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a warrantless search of a Trenton rooming house violated the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions, both of which require that police officers obtain a warrant before conducting a search, unless that search falls into a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. In so ruling, the state’s highest court upheld an Appellate Division decision holding that a resident of a boarding or rooming house has a reasonable expectation of privacy in areas beyond his or her bedroom door.

NJ Supreme Court Rules Warrantless Boarding House Search Violated Constitution

Facts of State v. Williams

Detective Estevez of the New Jersey State Police testified at a suppression hearing that, on March 19, 2016, he heard gunshots from a nearby neighborhood while in his office in Trenton. Dispatch reports indicated that the gunshots were fired at a nearby bar and that the suspected shooter was a Black male named “Louis” who had fled to, and lived at, a dwelling on Spring Street.

Estevez and another officer drove to the Spring Street dwelling. According to Estevez, the front door was equipped with a lock but was unlocked at that time and swung open when he knocked on it. The officers entered what Estevez described as a long hallway with a stairway leading to the second floor directly in front of him. Estevez noticed multiple doors to his left, all of which had padlocks on them, which led him to believe the building was being used as “a boarding house because usually boarding houses are multi-apartment dwellings.” After searching the common areas for weapons and the suspect, Estevez and the officer returned to their vehicle to search the surrounding area. They received a police dispatch report indicating that a crime scene was established at the bar; Estevez testified that he thus believed he was involved in an “active shooting” investigation.

Estevez returned to the Spring Street dwelling and began knocking on the interior doors. As he approached one room, Estevez heard movement and smelled marijuana through the door. He knocked on the door, announced that he was a police officer, and told the individual to answer the door. According to Estevez, the smell of marijuana drastically increased when defendant Louis Williams (Williams or defendant) opened the door, and defendant was sweating and breathing heavily. Estevez stated that while he was standing in the doorway, still in the common hallway, he looked into defendant’s room as defendant went to get his wallet to provide identification. Estevez testified that, in light of safety concerns, he was closely watching defendant’s hands and thus saw a small bag of marijuana next to the wallet, at which point he concluded defendant would be placed under arrest. Estevez testified that he stepped into defendant’s room as defendant turned to provide the identification. Estevez saw on defendant’s driver’s license that defendant’s name was Louis Williams. He then placed defendant under arrest for possession of marijuana, conducted a protective sweep of the bedroom, and applied for a warrant to search defendant’s room for drugs, weapons, and other items. After obtaining the warrant, other police officers searched defendant’s bedroom and seized a bag of marijuana and a gun.

The trial court denied Williams’s motion to suppress the drugs and weapon based on the plain view exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. In order to satisfy the plain view doctrine when this case was decided, the State was required to establish: 1) a police officer was “lawfully in the viewing area”; 2) the officer “discover[ed] the evidence ‘inadvertently'”; and 3) it was “‘immediately apparent’ to the police that the items in plain view were evidence of a crime, contraband, or otherwise subject to seizure.” State v. Bruzzese, 94 N.J. 210 (1983).

The trial court determined that defendant did not have a privacy right as to the common hallway. It specifically found that the constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures “only extend to such areas . . . in which an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy,” and that those safeguards did not extend to “the building in general” or “the common areas” because “those areas are accessible and used by other occupants.” The court went on to conclude that in light of Estevez’s plain-view observation from that lawfully accessed area, there was no unlawful search or seizure.

Appellate Division Decision in State v. Williams

The Appellate Division reversed. As emphasized in the Appellate Division’s decision, the key issue in the case was “whether Estevez had a lawful right to be in the second floor hallway where he initially smelled the marijuana that led to his observations, defendant’s arrest, and the issuance of the warrant prompting the seizure of the . . . gun.” To answer that question, the court had to determine whether the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the common hallway, which would entitle him to Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures

The Appellate Division ultimately rejected the trial court’s finding that the common areas of the boarding house, and specifically the second floor hallway outside defendant’s room, were open to the public, thereby eviscerating defendant’s privacy interest. In support, the appeals court noted that the front door was closed and equipped with a lock. Although the Appellate Division acknowledged that the door was unlocked when the officers arrived, it did not find that dispositive. According to the court, “the lack of proof that the communal areas were open to the public supports the conclusion that defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the second floor hallway.”

The Appellate Division further noted that the rooms of the boarding house shared a communal bathroom, which was accessed via the hallway. “[W]e decline to endorse an “inroad[] upon the reasonable expectations of privacy of the lesser situated of our citizens who are forced by economic circumstances to reside in rooming houses,” the court wrote. “Accordingly, we determine that society is willing to treat as private the space between a person’s bedroom and bathroom in such settings.”

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