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Brown v. State

Supreme Court of New Jersey

July 25, 2017

DENISE BROWN, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
STATE OF NEW JERSEY and JOHN STEET, DETECTIVE (NJSP), both in his individual and official capacity as New Jersey State Police Detective, Defendants-Appellants, and RICK FUENTES, COLONEL, both in his individual and official capacity as Superintendent of New Jersey State Police, CHRISTIAN ESKRIDGE, TROOPER (NJSP), both in his individual and official capacity as New Jersey State Trooper, CITY OF VINELAND, TIMOTHY CODISPOTI, both in his individual and official capacity as Vineland Chief of Police, JOSEPH VALENTINE, both in his individual and official capacity as Vineland Police Sergeant, DAVID HENDERSCOTT, OFFICER, both in his individual and official capacity as Vineland Police Officer, OFFICER SMITH, both in his individual and official capacity as Vineland Police Officer, and OFFICER SOTO, both in her individual and official capacity as Vineland Police Officer, Defendants.

          Argued January 31, 2017

         On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 442 N.J.Super. 406 (App. Div. 2015).

          David S. Frankel, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney; Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel).

          Carl D. Poplar argued the cause for respondent (The Riback Law Firm, attorneys; Mr. Poplar and William A. Riback, on the briefs) .

          Rebecca J. Livengood argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (Edward L. Barocas, Legal Director, attorney; Ms. Livengood, Mr. Barocas, Alexander R. Shalom, and Jeanne M. LoCicero, on the brief).

         LaVecchia, J., writing for the Court.

         This appeal concerns the applicability of qualified immunity to a claim brought under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA), N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 to -2, against a police detective named in his individual and official capacity.

         The events underlying this appeal relate to a State Police investigation of an October 2008 home invasion. According to witnesses, two men forcibly entered a home, stole belongings, and fled in a blue BMW. A few weeks later, plaintiff Denise Brown loaned her blue BMW to her boyfriend, Carlos Thomas. The State Police suspected that Thomas was involved in the burglary. Officers conducted a traffic stop, arrested Thomas for driving with a suspended license, and impounded Brown's vehicle. On November 20, Detective Eskridge searched Brown's car and found contraband and items linking the car to the home invasion. The State Police received a tip that Thomas had given Brown a locket reported as stolen during the break-in. The locket was not found in the search of Brown's car. As a result, Detective Eskridge determined that the investigation should include a search of Brown's home.

         Detective Eskridge decided to ask Brown if she would consent to a search of her home. Detective John Steet of the State Police accompanied him. The detectives arrived at Brown's apartment, told Brown that they had received a tip that Thomas had given her a stolen locket and asked if she would consent to a search of her home for the item. She immediately refused and told the officers to obtain a warrant if they wanted to search her apartment.

         Detective Steet testified that Brown's refusal to consent after she learned that the detectives were looking for a stolen locket made him fear that Brown would destroy evidence of the locket if she were permitted to enter the apartment alone. To prevent that possibility, the detectives told Brown that she could either remain outside the apartment, which would be secured by the officers from the outside, or enter the apartment accompanied by a police escort. Both detectives testified that their offer to secure the premises in either of those two ways was consistent with State Police training and approved by a supervisor at the State Police who had been contacted.

         Brown chose to enter the apartment, and Detective Steet followed her in. Detective Eskridge left to obtain a warrant. Other officers arrived an hour later. The officers remained in the kitchen, with Brown, while awaiting Eskridge's return. Detective Eskridge, armed with a search warrant, returned and searched the apartment.

         Brown filed a complaint against the State of New Jersey, Detectives Steet and Eskridge, and other officers. Defendants raised qualified immunity as a defense. Defendants' motion for summary judgment was denied as to the State Police and Detective Steet. The jury returned a verdict in favor of defendants. The Appellate Division reversed as to whether Detective Steet was entitled to qualified immunity. 442 N.J.Super. 406, 410-11 (App. Div. 2015). The panel concluded that Detective Steet acted unconstitutionally by entering Brown's home without a warrant and identified the warrantless entry as a clear violation of established precedent. The Court granted the Attorney General's petition for certification. 225 N.J. 339 (2016).

         HELD: In light of the context in which these circumstances arose-i.e., the lack of clarity in the law governing the lawful means by which law enforcement may secure a home pending issuance of a warrant and, significantly, that law's intersection with the law governing the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement-defendant did not violate a "clearly established" right when he entered Brown's home to secure it, and qualified immunity applies.

         1. Whether a governmental official is entitled to qualified immunity requires inquiries into whether: (1) the facts, taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right; and (2) that constitutional right was clearly established at the time that defendant acted, (pp. 15-17)

         2. Ordinarily, application of the defense of qualified immunity is a legal question for the court rather than the jury. The record does not clearly indicate that the trial court made a ruling as to the legality of the initial entry into Brown's apartment prior to trial. In the future, it would be more helpful for proceedings to identify with transparency the reasons for delaying a decision on qualified immunity, (pp 17-19)

         3. Brown alleges that the police entry into her apartment violated the right of New Jerseyans "to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." N.J. Const, art. I, ¶ 7. Under that provision, a warrantless search is presumptively invalid unless the search falls within one of the few well-delineated exceptions to the warrant requirement. One exception is a search justified by probable cause and exigent circumstances. The Attorney General has expressly conceded that, on these facts, "the officers could not have relied on exigent circumstances to search Brown's home while they awaited the warrant." (pp. 19-20)

         4. Instead, the Attorney General argues that the entry was lawful under United States Supreme Court case law that has specifically addressed the propriety of securing premises from within to preserve evidence while a search warrant was sought. In a 1984 case, the United States Supreme Court splintered on that pertinent issue. Segura v. United States, 468 U.S. 796 (1984). Confusion engendered by Segura was alleviated to some degree by the Supreme Court's decision in Illinois v. McArthur, 531 U.S. 326 (2001), which held that a police officer was justified in temporarily preventing a defendant from entering his home until a search warrant issued. To the extent that Segura and McArthur can be argued to justify a discrete set of warrantless home entries pending receipt of a requested warrant, they do so specifically in connection with "a plausible claim of specially pressing or urgent law enforcement need, i.e., 'exigent circumstances.'" Id. at 331. (pp. 20-24)

         5. In the seven years between McArthur and the conduct at issue in this case, the New Jersey Supreme Court did not opine on the constitutionality of seizing a home by securing it and preventing all access, or alternatively entering it with the occupant, while awaiting a search warrant. Appellate court decisions that considered the issue have not advanced a uniform interpretation of the law. The Court has recently touched on issues presented in Segura and McArthur. State v. Wright, 221 N.J. 456 (2015); State v. Legette, 227 N.J. 460 (2017). That guidance cannot inform the analysis of the conduct in this case because it came years after the contested home entry, (pp. 24-28)

         6. As of November 20, 2008, precedent was not sufficiently clear to support a conclusion that Detective Steet violated clearly established law when he entered Brown's home to secure it. And although police department policies do not hold compelling weight in a qualified immunity analysis, Detective Steet's reliance on State Police training and policy is informative when determining the reasonableness of his conduct. Detective Steet is entitled to qualified immunity as to Brown's NJCRA claim because regardless of whether his conduct amounts to a violation of a constitutional right, that right was not clearly established at the time that he acted, (pp. 28-35)

         7. The Court adds guidance going forward. In a case of true exigency and probable cause, the police can enter a dwelling. However, police-created exigency designed to subvert the warrant requirement has long been rejected as a basis to justify a warrantless entry into a home. Further, invocation of a person's right to refuse an officer's request for a consent search is not probative of wrongdoing and cannot be the justification for the warrantless entry into a home. In the future, law enforcement officials may not rely on McArthur to enter an apartment to secure it while awaiting a search warrant. Although McArthur does not explicitly permit or forbid entry into a home under those circumstances, this ruling makes clear that officers may not do so. They must get a warrant and, if reasonably necessary, may secure the apartment for a reasonable period of time from the outside, (pp. 35-37)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and the trial court's dismissal of this action against Detective Steet is REINSTATED.

          JUSTICE ALBIN, DISSENTING, notes that in the wake of McArthur, courts understood, as they always have, that the securing of a home-awaiting a warrant application-cannot be justified absent exigent circumstances. According to Justice Albin, Brown had a clearly established right to remain secure in her home, pending the arrival of a warrant, given the absence of any true exigent circumstances to justify a seizure of her apartment. Detective Steet therefore is not entitled to the protection of qualified immunity, in Justice Albin's view.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, and TIMPONE join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA's opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN filed a separate, dissenting opinion.

          OPINION

          LaVECCHIA JUSTICE.

         This appeal concerns the applicability of qualified immunity to a claim brought under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA), N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 to -2, against a State Police detective named in his individual and official capacity.[1]

         Plaintiff Denise Brown filed this NJCRA action claiming that her state constitutional rights were violated in 2008 when the defendant State Police officer accompanied her into her apartment, without a warrant and without her consent, in order to secure the premises while awaiting the issuance of a search warrant. Given the options, Brown had declined to grant consent to search her apartment to the two officers who were present and refused to allow the officers to secure the apartment from outside. The parties agree that there was probable cause to believe that Brown had evidence in her home and, in fact, a search warrant was obtained later that day. The officers were in search of evidence of a burglary for which Brown's boyfriend was a suspect, and the officers had reason to believe that a stolen locket necklace had been given to Brown.

         To determine whether qualified immunity applies here, two inquiries are pertinent: (1) were plaintiff's constitutional rights violated when the officers insisted that plaintiff be accompanied by an officer inside her apartment in order to secure the premises and its contents while awaiting the search warrant, and (2) was the constitutional right being violated clearly established at the time so that any reasonable officer acting competently in the circumstances would have known of the constitutional violation. The second prong of the inquiry shields a law enforcement officer who has engaged in a violation but does so when acting reasonably under color of law. However, if the officer knew, or objectively should have reasonably known, that he was engaged in a violation of a clear constitutional right, then his unreasonable behavior disentitles the officer to immunity from liability for his actions.

         In reviewing the actions that took place in 2008, we declare them to be inconsistent with the protections in Article I, Paragraph 7 of our State Constitution. A law enforcement officer, without a warrant and without consent, may not lawfully insist on entering a residence based on an assertion that exigent circumstances require the dwelling to be secured.

         However, in light of the context in which these circumstances arose -- i.e., the lack of clarity in the law governing the lawful means by which law enforcement may secure a home pending issuance of a warrant and, significantly, that law's intersection with the law governing the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement -- we conclude that defendant did not violate a "clearly established" right when he entered Brown's home to secure it. Therefore, we hold that qualified immunity applies and that Brown's claim against the remaining defendant officer was properly dismissed by the trial court.

         I.

         A.

         This matter proceeded to trial. Although the defense of qualified immunity was discussed at various points during the proceedings, the issue was not fully resolved pre-trial because the court sent to the jury disputed factual matters that were relevant to the issue before determining the qualified immunity question. We therefore recite the facts as presented and found at trial.

         The events underlying this appeal relate to a State Police investigation of a Cape May County home invasion that occurred in October 2008. According to victims and eyewitnesses, two men with handguns forcibly entered a home, stole jewelry and other belongings, and fled in a blue BMW, hauling away stolen goods in a black drawstring bag.

         A few weeks later, on November 12, 2008, plaintiff Denise Brown loaned her blue BMW to her boyfriend, Carlos Thomas. At the time, the State Police suspected that Thomas was involved in the burglary. On that date, officers of the Vineland Police Department conducted a traffic stop of the blue BMW, which Thomas was driving, arrested Thomas for driving with a suspended license, and impounded Brown's vehicle. Later that day, the State Police charged Thomas in connection with his alleged involvement in the home invasion. The same day, a State Police representative notified Brown of Thomas's arrest and that the State Police had her vehicle.

         The State Police kept Brown's impounded vehicle at headquarters for the next week while continuing to investigate the Cape May County case. On the evening of November 19, State Police Detective Christian Eskridge obtained a warrant to search Brown's car. That evening, he telephoned Brown to inform her that her car would be searched. Detective Eskridge offered to drive Brown to the police station after the search was executed so she could retrieve her car.

         On November 20, Detective Eskridge searched Brown's car and found contraband, a gun holster, and other items, including jewelry, linking the car to the home invasion. During the investigation into the burglary, the State Police received a tip that Thomas had given Brown a locket reported as stolen during the break-in. The locket was not among the jewelry found in the search of Brown's car. As a result, Detective Eskridge determined that the investigation should include a search of Brown's home.[2]

         Detective Eskridge was already scheduled that morning to bring Brown to pick up her car; he decided not to first seek a search warrant but instead to ask Brown if she would consent to a search of her home when he went to pick her up. Detective John Steet of the State Police accompanied him. Detective Eskridge explained that if Brown refused consent, he would then proceed to seek a search warrant, securing the premises in the interim by either preventing Brown from entering the home or allowing her access, accompanied by police, to prevent loss or destruction of evidence.

         The detectives arrived at Brown's apartment at about 10:00 a.m. on November 20. Brown had recently arrived home from work. She encountered Detectives Eskridge and Steet outside her apartment as she exited a neighbor's apartment. The detectives told Brown that they had received a tip that Thomas had given her a stolen locket and asked if she would consent to a search of her home for the item. She immediately refused and told the officers to obtain a warrant if they wanted to search her apartment. The conversation outside the apartment lasted about fifteen to twenty minutes.

         Detective Steet testified that Brown's refusal to consent after she learned that the detectives were looking for a stolen locket made him fear that Brown would destroy evidence of the locket if she were permitted to enter the apartment alone. To prevent that possibility, the detectives told Brown that she could either remain outside the apartment, which would be secured by the officers from the outside, [3] or enter the apartment accompanied by a police escort. Both detectives testified that their offer to secure the premises in either of those two ways was consistent with State Police training and approved by a supervisor at the State Police who had been contacted.

         Brown chose to enter the apartment, and Detective Steet followed her in. Detective Eskridge left to obtain a search warrant. Other State Police officers arrived an hour later. The officers remained in the apartment's kitchen, with Brown, while awaiting Eskridge's return from obtaining the warrant from the same Cape May County judge who issued the warrant to search Brown's car. Because Brown's apartment was in Cumberland County, it took several hours for Eskridge to obtain the warrant and return.

         At about 1:30 p.m., Brown left to report for work and the officers exited with her.[4] At approximately 4:00 p.m., Detective Eskridge, armed with a search warrant, returned and searched the apartment. During the search, the officers found a black drawstring bag -- like the one described by the victims and eyewitnesses to the Cape May County home invasion -- but no locket.

         B.

         Brown commenced the instant matter by filing a complaint in the Law Division against the State of New Jersey, Detectives Steet and Eskridge, and other State Police and Vineland Police Department officers. Among others, Brown advanced an NJCRA claim under N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c), which provides a cause of action for deprivation of "any substantive rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of this State, " alleging a violation of Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution, which guarantees freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.[5] She sought compensatory and punitive damages, a declaratory judgment that defendants' conduct violated her rights, and injunctive relief, along with costs and fees. Defendants denied Brown's allegations and raised qualified immunity as a defense.

         Prior to trial, defendants moved for summary judgment, which was granted for certain defendants, including Detective Eskridge; however, the motion for summary judgment was denied as to the State Police and Detective Steet. The trial court reserved decision on the remaining defendants' qualified immunity defense, determining to allow the jury to resolve underlying material questions of fact, after which the court would resolve remaining questions of law related to the immunity defense.

         The jury returned a verdict in favor of defendants, finding that Brown failed to prove that: (1) the State Police lacked a good reason to fear the destruction of evidence before seeking the issuance of a warrant; (2) the State Police and Detective Steet failed "to reconcile . . . law enforcement needs with [her] privacy interests"; (3) the State Police restricted her movements by preventing her from leaving her apartment; and (4) the State Police restricted "her movements for an unreasonable period."

         Brown's motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) was denied.

         C.

         On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's denial of Brown's motion for JNOV as to the State Police, but the panel reversed as to whether Detective Steet was entitled to qualified immunity. Brown v. State, 442 N.J.Super. 406, 410-11 (App. Div. 2015).

         The panel concluded that Detective Steet acted unconstitutionally by entering Brown's home without a warrant because his entry was premised on invalid police-created exigency, namely, the detectives' disclosure to Brown of the object of their search and their subsequent reliance on her informed refusal of consent. Id. at 417, 427-28. The panel rejected the argument that Steet's entry was justified under Illinois v. McArthur, 531 U.S. 326, 121 S.Ct. 946, 148 L.Ed.2d 838 (2001), in which the United States Supreme Court found an officer's entry into the threshold of a home to monitor a suspect's movements pending issuance of a search warrant to be reasonable. Brown, supra, 442 N.J. Super, at 421. Rather, the panel labelled this entry a severe intrusion upon Brown's constitutional privacy rights unsupported by genuine exigency to justify the action. Ibid. Further, the panel identified the officer's warrantless entry into Brown's home as a clear violation of established precedent regarding the protection provided by Article I, Paragraph 7 to privacy rights in a home. Id. at 427. Determining qualified immunity to be inapplicable, the panel remanded for a determination of damages against Detective Steet. Id. at 427-28.

         The Attorney General filed a petition for certification to this Court, which was granted. 225 N.J. 339 (2016) . We also granted the motion of the American Civil Liberties Union of ...


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