On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
This appeal requires the Court to apply the "independent-source" rule, which allows admission of evidence that has been discovered by means wholly independent of any constitutional violation by law enforcement officers.
On August 19, 1995, a Glassboro policeman responded to a call to assist an ambulance crew at 33 South Academy Street, a duplex that shared a common porch with its other half, located at 31 South Academy Street. When the patrolman walked toward the porch, he noticed a very strong odor of burning marijuana, which he then believed was emanating from the 31 South Academy address.
After the ambulance crew departed the scene, the patrolman radioed for backup officers to assist him in locating the source of the marijuana odor. Two other policemen and a sergeant arrived for that purpose and all four officers subsequently identified the 31 South Academy address as the source of the odor. They heard laughter and conversation coming from within the residence. One of the officers knocked on the front door and loudly announced that it was the Glassboro police. Through an open front window, another officer observed a man, later identified as defendant Richard Holland, run toward the rear of the house.
Another officer, stationed by the back door of the residence, saw the defendant exit the house through the back door. Outside, the defendant dropped some vegetation on the ground that the officer suspected was a small piece or bud of marijuana. He was handcuffed and arrested. In response to a specific question, Holland indicated that there were other occupants in the house.
Thereafter, two of the officers entered the residence to secure their own safety and "to determine if any other person was part of a crime." While inside, the officers noticed drug paraphernalia, marijuana roaches in the living room ashtray, several glassine bags, a scale, and green vegetation that they suspected was marijuana. In addition, the officers discovered two rooms within the residence that they suspected were "grow rooms" for marijuana. Although the officers seized none of the drug paraphernalia items, they did secure for their protection a Colt.45 semi-automatic pistol they found in a basement stairway.
After the officers searched and secured the entire house, the sergeant notified a detective and informed him of what they had seen. At that point, the detective assumed the investigation. That same day, the detective drafted a search warrant application and supporting affidavit, describing in detail the facts and the items found inside Holland's home as related by the officers. On that basis, a Superior Court judge issued a search warrant. The police executed that warrant and seized the objects initially observed by the officers and the sergeant.
A grand jury indicted Holland on several drug offenses. Holland then moved to suppress the evidence derived from the search of his home, which the trial court denied. Holland was subsequently convicted on several counts of drug possession and possession with intent to distribute and was sentenced on the basis of those convictions.
Holland appealed his conviction, challenging the trial court's denial of his suppression motion. In a reported decision, the Appellate Division determined that while the officers had probable cause to believe that one or more persons on the premises possessed an unknown quantity of marijuana, a disorderly personas offense, that offense was minor and rarely would support a finding of exigent circumstances sufficient to justify a warrantless home entry. The panel further rejected the officers' claim that the circumstances authorized them to make a "protective sweep" of the premises because there was no evidence to support a reasonable belief on the part of the police that they were in danger before they entered the house. Thus, the Appellate Division remanded the matter to the trial court for it to determine whether the evidence should be suppressed or whether it might be permissible pursuant to the independent source rule.
On remand, applying the independent source rule, the trial court again denied Holland's suppression motion. The Appellate Division affirmed in an unreported opinion.
The Supreme Court granted Holland's petition for certification.
HELD: Under the framework the Court has articulated here, the independent-source rule cannot sustain what otherwise was an impermissible search of defendant's home where the officers could not prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that they would have sought a search warrant independent of the tainted knowledge or evidence that they previously had acquired or viewed.
1. Consistent with both the United States and the New Jersey Constitutions, police officers must obtain a warrant from a neutral judicial officer prior to searching a person's home, unless the search falls within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement. Generally, evidence directly or derivatively seized in violation of the warrant requirement is suppressed, the well-accepted purpose of the exclusion being to compel respect for the constitutional guarantee by removing the incentive to disregard it. (pp. 8-9)
2. The independent-source rule, an exception to the exclusionary rule, and an established part of New Jersey's constitutional jurisprudence, allows admission of evidence that has been discovered by means wholly independent of any constitutional violation. (pp. 9-11)
3. Although New Jersey Courts have been referring to the independent-source doctrine for the past seventy-five years, it has not always been straightforward in its application. (pp. 11-18)
4. Although the government should be held to an elevated burden of proof when justifying a search under the independent-source rule, when applying that rule, our courts must harmonize it with existing case law that permits redaction of tainted information from warrant applications in certain circumstances. (p. 19)
5. When evaluating the independent-source doctrine under the New Jersey Constitution, the following framework is to be applied: 1) the State must demonstrate that probable cause existed to conduct the challenged search without the unlawfully obtained information; 2) the State must demonstrate in accordance with an elevated standard of proof, that is - by clear and convincing evidence, that the police would have sought a warrant without the tainted knowledge or evidence that they previously had acquired or viewed; and 3) regardless of the strength of their proof under the first and second prongs, prosecutors must demonstrate by the same enhanced standard that the initial impermissible search was not the product of flagrant police misconduct. (pp. 19-20)
6. The Court's formulation of the independent-source rule's contours, including the elevated burden of proof, is necessary to restore a fair balance between the adversarial positions of the parties and constitutes a proper accommodation of the conflicting interests of the State and the defendant. (pp. 20-22)
7. Although courts generally have avoided per se rules in the search and seizure context in favor of a case-by-case analysis guided by a totality of the circumstances, courts must apply scrupulously each part of the test. The government's failure to satisfy any one prong of the standard will result in suppression of the challenged evidence. (p. 22-23)
8. Applying the standard articulated for the application of the independent-source doctrine, in this case, under a clear and convincing standard of proof, it cannot be concluded that the information acquired by the officers wholly apart from the impermissible search would have prompted them to secure a warrant. Thus, the seizure of evidence here cannot be sustained under the second prong of the analysis. (pp. 23-25)
9. An individual's privacy interests are nowhere more clearly defined or rigorously protected by the courts than in the home, the core of Fourth Amendment rights, and the fact that the police conduct in this case occurred inside defendant's residence fortifies the Court's holding that the independent-source rule cannot sustain what otherwise was an impermissible search.
Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES COLEMAN, LONG, LaVECCHIA, and ZAZZALI join in JUSTICE VERNIERO's
JUSTICE ALBIN did not participate.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Verniero, J.
This case implicates defendant's right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures in a residential setting. We are called on to apply the "independent-source" rule, which "allows admission of evidence that has been discovered by means wholly independent of any constitutional violation." Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431, 443, 104 S. Ct. 2501, 2508, 81 L. Ed. 2d 377, 387 (1984). Although prior New Jersey decisions have cited the independent-source rule with varying elaboration, this case presents our first opportunity to articulate the rule's ...