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State ex rel. J.A.

Supreme Court of New Jersey

June 6, 2018

STATE OF NEW JERSEY IN THE INTEREST OF J.A., Juvenile-Appellant.

          Argued January 2, 2018

          On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Peter T. Blum, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant J.A. (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Peter T. Blum, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Steven A. Yomtov, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent State of New Jersey (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney; Steven A. Yomtov, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Alexander Shalom argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (Edward L. Barocas, Legal Director, and Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic, attorneys; Alexander Shalom, Edward L. Barocas, Jeanne LoCicero, of counsel and on the brief, and Ronald K. Chen, on the brief).

          Jonathan Romberg argued the cause for amicus curiae Seton Hall University School of Law Center for Social Justice (Seton Hall University School of Law Center for Social Justice, attorney; Jonathan Romberg, on the brief).

         SYLLABUS

          FERNANDEZ-VINA, J., writing for the Court.

         In this case, the Court considers the admissibility of evidence procured from a home after police officers' warrantless entry.

         The victim was standing at a bus stop in Willingboro when he was approached by a young man in a hooded black sweatshirt and camouflage shorts, who asked to use his cell phone. The man punched the victim in the arm, took the phone, and ran. A Willingboro Police Officer was dispatched to meet the victim at the bus stop. The victim explained that the phone was an Apple iPhone, which had been in a pink glittery case. The officer and the victim used the "Find My iPhone" application to track the location of the phone. The application immediately identified a house about three blocks from the bus stop as the phone's whereabouts. After about two minutes, the phone was shut off, which prevented the application from further tracking the phone's location.

         Police officers decided to secure the perimeter of the house. While performing an exterior security check, an officer peered through a first-floor window and noticed a pink glittery phone case matching the victim's description on a nearby bed. At that point, the police thought that the young man who took the victim's phone may have been inside the house. No one responded to the officers' several knocks on the front door. One officer found an unlocked window on the first floor, through which he and another officer entered the house. The officers found defendant, unarmed, upstairs in the master bedroom, lying under a blanket on the bed. The officers also found a hooded sweatshirt and a pair of camouflage shorts nearby. The officers handcuffed defendant, brought him downstairs, and questioned him about his knowledge of the robbery. Defendant's family members subsequently arrived at the house, including his older brother and mother, who lived there. The latter informed the officers that they could search the house for the missing phone. The brother asked if the officers had found the phone, and when they responded that they had not, he said that if it was not in defendant's bedroom, it was probably in the younger brother's room. Without encouragement from the police, he went to their younger brother's room accompanied by an officer, found a phone, and gave it to the officer. The phone matched the victim's description of his stolen phone. Defendant's mother later provided written consent to search the house.

         Defendant was charged with an act that would have constituted second-degree robbery had he been an adult at the time. He filed a motion to suppress the phone. The court held that because defendant's brother retrieved the phone, and because he did not act as an agent of the officers, defendant could not bring a constitutional claim to challenge the seizure of the phone. Therefore, the court denied defendant's suppression motion.

         The Appellate Division affirmed, concluding that the officers had probable cause to search and faced exigent circumstances, which justified their warrantless entry into defendant's home. The panel stated that "[t]he technology that led police to [defendant's] home provided some of the exigency supporting their entry" and concluded that the record supported a finding that the hot pursuit exception to the warrant requirement rendered the officers' action constitutional. The panel found that because defendant's brother, a non-state actor, uncovered the phone, defendant's mother's consent was not significant to the constitutional analysis of this search.

         The Court granted certification. 229 N.J. 164 (2017).

         HELD: Neither exigency nor the hot pursuit doctrine justified the officers' warrantless entry here. However, defendant's brother's actions did not constitute state action and were sufficiently attenuated from the unlawful police conduct to preclude application of the exclusionary rule to the evidence.

         1. A warrantless entry into a home is presumptively invalid unless the State can show that it falls within one of the specific, delineated exceptions to the general warrant requirement. Evidence found pursuant to a warrantless search not justified by an exception to the warrant requirement is subject to suppression under the exclusionary rule. However, the exclusionary rule applies to preclude the admission of evidence only when such evidence is suitably linked to the police misconduct. Therefore, when evidence is acquired by constitutionally valid means after initial unconstitutional action by law enforcement, courts must consider whether the exclusionary rule is applicable. Such evidence is admissible when the connection between the unconstitutional police action and the secured evidence becomes so attenuated as to dissipate the taint from the unlawful conduct. (pp. 13-16)

         2. One recognized exception to the warrant requirement is the presence of exigent circumstances. To invoke that exception, the State must show that the officers had probable cause and faced an objective exigency, of which police safety and the preservation of evidence remain the preeminent determinants. For a "hot pursuit" to justify an exception to the warrant requirement, officers must have had probable cause and have been in immediate or continuous pursuit of the suspect from the scene of the crime. Because the "hot pursuit" doctrine is a subset of the exigent-circumstances exception, the touchstones that would justify a warrantless entry remain the possible destruction of evidence and the threat of violence by the suspect. In State v. Bolte, hot pursuit could not justify the police entry when the defendant was unarmed and the police had no reason to believe he posed a danger or would destroy evidence-a justification usually reserved for narcotics cases. 115 N.J. 579, 593-94 (1989). (pp. 16-19)

         3. Here, the Court does not need to consider whether the officer's pursuit of defendant, facilitated by his use of the Find My iPhone application, falls within the purview of the hot pursuit doctrine because the doctrine does not apply for other reasons. The State failed to prove that the police had any basis to believe defendant would injure anyone inside the house or the officers themselves, so that waiting to obtain a warrant would have been unreasonable. Likewise, the State did not show that the officers had any reason to believe that defendant would (or could) destroy the phone. Neither exigency nor the hot pursuit doctrine justified the officers' warrantless entry here. (pp. 20-21)

         4. The Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures operates as a restraint only upon sovereign authority. State v. Scrotsky, 39 N.J. 410, 416 (1963). Thus, "where a private person steals or unlawfully takes possession of property from the premises of the owner and turns it over to the government, which did not participate in the taking, it may be used as incriminating evidence against the owner in a subsequent criminal prosecution." Ibid. When a private person acts "as an arm of the police, " however, the private person's seizure of property constitutes state action for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. Ibid. In Scrotsky, the landlady of an apartment building suspected that one of her tenants had been stealing personal effects from her home and entered the tenant's apartment accompanied by a police detective. Id. at 413-14. The landlady "went into the apartment with the [police] and seized the property under color of their authority and as a participant in a police action." Id. at 415. Therefore the evidence seized by the landlady could not be introduced. Id. at 417-18. (pp. 21-23)

         5. Here, defendant's brother was clearly not acting as an agent of the State when he searched for the phone. Unlike in Scrotsky, defendant's brother's actions were completely independent of the officer's investigation. The mere presence of an officer does not by itself indicate police coercion or influence, and no evidence in the record supports that defendant's brother's search was causally or temporally connected to the police misconduct. Defendant's brother's unprovoked decision to search for the phone himself is an intervening circumstance that breaks the causal connection between the unlawful police entry and the finding of the phone. The brother's actions were voluntary and unsolicited by the police, and the phone is immune from the exclusionary rule. (pp. 23-26)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is MODIFIED and AFFIRMED.

          JUSTICE ALBIN, DISSENTING, notes that the State bears the burden of proving attenuation. According to Justice Albin, the State failed to show that the unlawful police occupation of the family home did not heavily influence the brother's decision to fetch the phone and that, absent the unlawful police presence, the brother would have volunteered to look for the phone. The taint from the unconstitutional police occupation of defendant's home was not purged by the brother's cooperation with the police, in Justice Albin's view.

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

          FERNANDEZ-VINA JUSTICE.

         In this case, we consider the admissibility of evidence procured from a home after police officers' warrantless entry.

         A man was attacked at a bus stop in Willingboro and his cell phone was stolen. He and a police officer tracked the phone's location to a nearby house using a phone tracking application.

         Several officers arrived at the house, and one spotted the stolen cell phone's case through a window. When no one responded to their knocks on the door, the officers entered the house through an unlocked window. Once inside, they performed a protective sweep to determine whether the suspect was inside, and they found defendant, J.A., then seventeen years of age, under the covers of a bed. Shortly thereafter, defendant's mother and brother arrived home. After the officers explained their investigation, defendant's mother consented to a search of the house, and defendant's brother voluntarily retrieved the stolen phone. Defendant was later charged with second-degree robbery for theft of the phone.

         Defendant moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the officers' entry into his home was unconstitutional because the officers entered without a warrant and there were no circumstances that would justify an exception to the warrant requirement. The trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress. The court found that, although the officers' search procedure may have been imprudent, it was ultimately defendant's brother -- without any coercion or duress from law enforcement -- who retrieved the cell phone. The court reasoned that defendant could not challenge the seizure of the cell phone in light of that lack of state action.

         Defendant appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The panel held that the officers had probable cause to search and found that exigent circumstances justified the officers' warrantless entry into defendant's home. The panel also found that the fact that defendant's brother, and not law enforcement officers, retrieved the phone neutralized any potential problems with his mother's consent.

         We disagree with the panel's determination that the officers' warrantless entry was justified by the claimed exigency faced by the officers. However, we agree that defendant's brother's actions did not constitute state action and were sufficiently attenuated from the unlawful police conduct. Because we find that the brother's independent actions operate to preclude application of the exclusionary rule to the evidence, we do not reach the question of defendant's mother's consent to search. Accordingly, we modify and affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division.

         I.

         A.

         On May 30, 2014, the victim was standing at a bus stop in Willingboro when he was approached by a young man in a hooded black sweatshirt and camouflage shorts. The young man asked to use the victim's cell phone, explaining that he was locked out of his house. The victim hesitated, then reached to take out his phone. As the victim was facing the other direction, the man punched him in the arm, took the phone, and ran.

         A Willingboro Police Officer was dispatched to meet the victim at the bus stop. The victim explained that the phone was an Apple iPhone, which had been in a pink glittery case.

         The officer and the victim used the "Find My iPhone" application to track the location of the phone. The application immediately identified a house about three blocks from the bus stop as the phone's whereabouts. After about two minutes, the phone was shut off, which prevented the application from further tracking the phone's location.

         The officer went to the house, and other police officers were dispatched there as well. The officers decided to secure the perimeter of the house. While performing an exterior security check, an officer peered through a first-floor window and noticed a pink glittery phone case matching the victim's description on a nearby bed. At that point, the police thought that the young man who took the victim's phone may have been inside the house.

         The officers believed that the house was abandoned: curtain blinds covered most of the windows, there were no signs of life inside or cars in the driveway, and no one responded to the officers' several knocks on the front door.

         One officer found an unlocked window on the first floor, through which he and another officer entered the house. Another officer subsequently entered through the front door. Once inside, the officers began searching the house for the suspect. During their search, they observed the phone case that was previously seen through the first floor ...


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