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State v. Jones

December 13, 1995


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 277 N.J. Super. 113 (1994).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J. Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Stein and Coleman join in Justice Garibaldi's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Garibaldi


(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).


Argued October 10, 1995 -- Decided December 13, 1995

GARIBALDI, J., writing for the Court.

The issue on appeal is whether it was reasonable, under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution, for a police officer, following the fleeing subject of an outstanding arrest warrant, to enter a private residence using force if the officer did not know the nature of the underlying offense.

On the evening of October 15, 1989, Peter Katsihtis parked his car in the parking lot of the Stony Hill Inn. The next morning, Katsihtis found the car broken into and certain items stolen. He reported the theft to the Hackensack Police.

On October 18, 1989, Sergeants Michael Mordaga and Robert Wright of the Hackensack Police Department's Narcotics Street Crime Unit were conducting a surveillance when they observed a vehicle containing Jones and Lonzie Collier pull into a parking lot. Officer Mordaga recognized Collier and remembered having seen an outstanding warrant for his arrest earlier that evening. At that time, Mordaga did not know the offenses underlying the issuance of the warrant. The officers later learned that the warrant was issued for Collier's failure to pay certain fines.

When the officers approached Collier and Jones, they fled. The record is unclear whether the officers informed Collier that they had a warrant for his arrest before the men ran away. Mordaga and Wright chased Collier and Jones as they entered an apartment building, ran up the stairs, and entered apartment 312. The officers tried to open the apartment door, found it locked and kicked it down. The record is also unclear as to whether the officers knocked and announced their presence before breaking down the door. Inside the door was a kitchen table on which the officers observed, and later seized, various narcotics paraphernalia and documents, including items belonging to Katsihtis. Collier and Jones were arrested and taken into custody. At the police station, Jones agreed to cooperate with the police. He made statements implicating himself and Collier in other crimes. The next morning, Jones also gave a statement to another detective regarding his and Collier's participation in the Katsihtis robbery.

Jones was indicted on charges of first degree robbery, burglary, possession of heroin, and receiving stolen property. Prior to trial, Jones moved to suppress the physical evidence seized from the apartment and the oral statements that he gave to the police after being taken into custody. Jones also moved to have certain counts severed for trial. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, concluding that the entry into the apartment was lawful and that the officers could have seized, pursuant to the arrest warrant, any contraband that they had observed on the kitchen table. The trial court granted Jones's motion to sever various counts of the indictment.

Jones stood trial only on the Katsihtis burglary charge. He was found guilty by a jury. Jones appealed his conviction to the Appellate Division, which reversed and remanded, finding that the physical evidence obtained at the apartment and Jones's subsequent inculpatory statements should have been suppressed because the officers impermissibly broke into apartment 312 and, therefore, the evidence seized therein was the result of an unreasonable search and seizure. The Appellate Division relied on State v. Bolte, in which this Court held that it was unreasonable for a police officer, in hot pursuit of a person suspected of numerous motor vehicle and disorderly persons offenses, to make a warrantless entry into the suspect's home to effect an arrest. The Appellate Division reasoned that if an arrest for numerous motor vehicle and disorderly persons violations committed in the officer's presence did not justify invading the sanctity of a private home, then the execution of an arrest warrant issued for similar minor offenses would not validate such an invasion. The panel also held that the officers, prior to entering the private residence, should have inquired as to the basis for the outstanding warrant at the time they tried to execute it.

The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.

HELD: Under the totality of the circumstances in this case, the police officers acted in an objectively reasonable manner under the Fourth Amendment and Article 1, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution when they followed co-defendant Lonzie Collier, the fleeing subject of a valid arrest warrant, into his apartment.

1. The requirement that police obtain a warrant safeguards citizens by placing the determination of probable cause in the hands of a neutral magistrate before an arrest or search is authorized. Under the Fourth Amendment, police have the right to execute an arrest warrant on a defendant at his or her home and they may enter the home to search for the defendant when there is probable cause to believe that the defendant is there. (pp. 8-10)

2. Under statutory and decisional law, the officers had a right, and a duty, to effect the arrest of Collier by entering the apartment. They were acting under a validly issued arrest warrant and were following Collier into an apartment building in hot pursuit. Whether Collier's fleeing made it impossible for him to hear one of the officers state that he had a warrant for his arrest makes no difference. (pp. 10-12)

3. The Appellate Division failed to comprehend the distinction between the entry here pursuant to a warrant and the warrantless entries in Bolte and Welsh v. Wisconsin. Here, the officers were making an in-home arrest, albeit for a minor offense, pursuant to a valid arrest warrant issued on probable cause by a neutral and detached magistrate. (pp. 12-13)

4. Because of the volume of outstanding warrants, police officers rarely know the underlying offense on which the arrest warrant is issued. The distinction suggested by the Appellate Division between minor offenses and serious offenses is unreasonable and impractical. To require that police know the offenses underlying every warrant, and then whether or not a given offense is a minor one, unjustifiably interferes with the ability of police to arrest individuals wanted on outstanding warrants. Law enforcement officers have a duty to enforce validly issued arrest warrants without distinction, whether they were issued for minor or serious offenses. As long as the officers acted reasonably in executing the warrant, as they did here, then the arrest and the evidence seized incident to the arrest should be admitted into evidence. (pp. 13-16)

5. In the recent U.S. Supreme Court's decision Wilson v. Arkansas, it was left to the discretion of the lower courts to determine the circumstances under which an unannounced entry is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Here, it was not necessary for Mordaga and Wright to announce their presence and purpose prior to entry because the suspects knew the officers were chasing them, and fled into the private apartment to avoid arrest. Furthermore, the officers knew that both Jones and Collier had been convicted previously of drug offenses; evidence of drug use or drug distribution is easily destroyed. (pp. 16-18)

6. Generally, officers are required to inform a defendant of the offense charged and of the fact that the warrant has been issued. It was reasonable under the circumstances of this case to dispense with the requirement that the officers inform Collier of the offense charged. In other circumstances, a forceful entry to execute an arrest warrant may not be reasonable. The main test is whether the law enforcement officer acted in an objectively reasonable manner. (pp. 18-19)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and Jones's conviction is REINSTATED.


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