Most people are aware that the Constitution guarantees the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and, in most circumstance, requires law enforcement agents to secure a warrant prior to executing a search. However, what some individuals do not realize is that the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures applies only to the government. Private individuals, companies, and other non-governmental actors are not subject to the constraints and requirements set forth in the Fourth Amendment.

However one interesting situation that can arise in criminal cases involving drugs, an unlicensed gun or firearm, or other cases involving contraband is at issue is when a private actor notices the contraband and alerts a police officer. The police officer then conducts a search that reveals the presence of the contraband. He arrests the defendant and the defendant is charged with a crime. The defendant or his attorney then move to suppress the evidence due to the illegal search.  

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Understanding the ‘Private Search’ Doctrine

The private search doctrine is, essentially, an exception to the steps and measures otherwise required by the Fourth Amendment. In U.S. v. Jacobsen the U.S. Supreme Court held that a search by a police officer or other government actor that merely recreates a previously carried out search by a private individual, is not a search at all. The carrying out of the private search eliminates the individual’s reasonable expectation to privacy regarding the object searched and therefore also eliminates any Fourth amendment protections.   The action taken by the government actor is judged by the extent that it went beyond the original search.  

Couple Faced Drug and Weapons Charges After Landlord Noticed Contraband in Tenant’s Home

The facts in a recently decided New Jersey Supreme Court case are remarkably similar to the situation described above in the introduction. Here, in State of New Jersey v. Ricky Wright, a couple living at the Jersey Shore in Asbury Park, New Jersey noticed a major leak likely due to a burst pipe in her ceiling. She called who landlord who instructed her on how to turn off the water and promised to come to repair the defective condition the next day.

As promised, the landlord did come with a plumber the following day. He was unable to reach the occupants of the apartment so after waiting for half an hour he, as was custom, let himself into the unit with the repairman to inspect the damage. While the landlord and handyman did see the water damage, they also noticed what appeared to be marijuana resting on a bedroom night stand. Furthermore, a substance that appeared to be cocaine was visible in an open drawer. The landlord called the police regarding the drugs observed in the home.

When the officer arrived at the home he performed a walkthrough and noticed the same drugs reported by the landlord. The officer also noted that he found a scale which had not been previously mentioned or addressed. The police officer then called for backup so that a full search could be conducted. Even though there was ample time to obtain a search warrant, a warrant was never obtained. The full search uncovered additional drugs and a loaded handgun containing illegal armor-piercing bullets.

At trial and appellate levels Wright’s attorneys unsuccessfully attempted to suppress the evidence gathered during the search. In both matters the court refused to suppress the evidence because of the private search doctrine. Both courts found that the police search did not exceed the scope of the original search. The matter was appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court and the Court granted certiorari.

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Private Search Doctrine Does Not Extend to a Home in New Jersey

On appeal the New Jersey Supreme Court determined that the U.S. Supreme Court had never extended the reach of the private search doctrine to permit a warrantless search of a private home. A private residence represents a special and personal environment where an individual’s expectation of privacy is at its greatest. In short, the court recognized continued to recognize the special significance a home has held for centuries. The NJ Supreme Court held that there is a presumption of invalidity for all warrantless searches carried out in a private home. When there is a warrantless search, the presence of one of the recognized exceptions to this prohibition are required or the search is considered unconstitutional in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  

Facing Gun, Drug, or other Contraband Criminal Charges in South Jersey?

Drug and gun possession charges are serious criminal charges carrying penalties that can deprive you of your rights and freedoms. The criminal defense attorneys of the Law Firm of John J. Zarych are dedicated to fighting for those accused of serious crimes. To schedule a free and confidential criminal defense consultation, call us at (609) 616-4956 or contact us online today.