November 27, 2018
certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
Michael A. Orozco argued the cause for appellant (Price,
Meese, Shulman & D'Arminio, attorneys; Michael A.
Orozco, Brian J. Yarzab, and John R. Edwards, Jr., on the
briefs; Andrew J. Fede, pro se, on the petition).
William P. Miller, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting
Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for respondent (Dennis
Calo, Acting Bergen County Prosecutor, attorney; Jenny X.
Zhang, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant
Prosecutor, of counsel and on the briefs; and Annmarie Cozzi,
Senior Assistant Prosecutor, on the briefs).
Borden argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil
Liberties Union of New Jersey (American Civil Liberties Union
of New Jersey Foundation, attorneys; Tess Borden, Alexander
Shalom, Edward Barocas, and Jeanne LoCicero, on the brief).
Jennifer E. Kmieciak, Deputy Attorney General, argued the
cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey
(Gurbir S. Grewal, Attorney General, attorney; Jennifer E.
Kmieciak, of counsel and on the brief).
TIMPONE, J., writing for the Court.
appeal, the Court considers whether defendant Andrew J. Fede
violated the criminal obstruction statute, N.J.S.A.
2C:29-1(a), when he refused to remove the chain lock from the
door to his home and allow warrantless entry by police
officers who were responding to a report of potential
March 2014, two police officers were dispatched to a
multi-family building in response to a call reporting a
potential domestic violence situation. Patrol Officer Zoklu
and Sergeant Becker of the Cliffside Park Police Department
knocked on the door of defendant's apartment. Defendant
partially opened the door, which was secured with a chain
officers identified themselves, told defendant they were
investigating a domestic disturbance, and sought entry into
his home to check on the well-being of the occupants. The
officers learned that defendant lived with Stephanie
Santiago. Defendant explained that she was away in South
Carolina and he was alone in the apartment.
conversation continued, the situation became more
contentious. Defendant asked if they had a warrant. The
officers explained they were acting under the
community-caretaking doctrine and were permitted to enter his
home without a warrant to ensure the welfare of the
occupants. Defendant demanded a warrant. He remained by the
door in view of the officers, refusing to unchain his lock.
In an effort to defuse the situation, the officers gave
defendant the telephone number of their supervisor. Fede
spoke to the supervisor, who confirmed the officers'
reason for seeking entry. The officers were unable to
convince Fede to unchain his door.
about the possibility of domestic violence, the officers
broke the chain lock on Fede's door and entered his
apartment. The entry was uneventful, and after being
instructed to move into the building's hallway, Fede
stepped outside of his apartment and stood next to Zoklu as
other officers searched the home. The search confirmed that
defendant was alone in the apartment. The officers thereafter
placed Fede under arrest for obstruction of the
administration of the law under N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a) for
failing to remove the chain lock from his door.
trial was held in the Cliffside Park Municipal Court. The
trial court found the officers had an objectively reasonable
basis to enter Fede's apartment given the report of
domestic violence and that Fede had a legal obligation to
admit officers into his home. The court found Fede's
refusal to unchain his lock so the officers could enter an
obstacle for purposes of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a).
Fede's first appeal, a Law Division judge affirmed
defendant's conviction, concluding that because defendant
had "purposely prevented" officers from gaining
entry into his home by "refusing to unchain his
door," he "creat[ed] an obstacle, which prevented
the police from performing their official function."
further appeal to the Appellate Division, the panel affirmed
the Law Division's holding, additionally relying on
State v. Reece, 222 N.J. 154 (2015).
Court granted Fede's petition for certification. 232 N.J.
The Court stresses that the police officers had the right to
enter defendant's home under the emergency-aid doctrine,
which permits warrantless entry under circumstances like
those presented in this case. Because defendant's refusal
to remove the door chain did not constitute an affirmative
interference for purposes of obstructing justice within the
meaning of the obstruction statute, the Court reverses the
judgment of the Appellate Division and vacates
1. As a
preliminary matter, the Court considers the appropriateness
of the officers' actions in breaking the door's chain
lock. Among their extensive duties, police officers serve a
vital community-caretaking role. In this role, they are given
the latitude to make warrantless entry into a home under the
emergency-aid exception to the warrant requirement. Where, as
here, a report of domestic violence provides the police with
an objectively reasonable basis to believe an emergency
exists inside the home, a warrantless search is permitted for
the limited purpose of ensuring the welfare of the occupants
in the home. The police officers at the heart of this matter
acted properly and professionally under the emergency-aid
doctrine in breaking the chain lock to enter defendant's
apartment in order to ascertain the validity of reported
allegations of domestic violence within the apartment. (pp.
Charging defendant with obstruction for refusing to unchain
the door lock, however, is a different matter. The
police's having the right to enter Fede's home does
not lead to the conclusion that Fede's refusal to remove
the chain from the lock on his door constituted obstruction
within the meaning of the criminal obstruction statute. (p.
violate N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a), a person must not only
"purposely obstruct, impair or pervert the
administration of law" but must do so through one of the
specifically enumerated acts in the statute, through
"physical interference or obstacle," or through an
"independently unlawful act." In its second
sentence, the statute specifically distinguishes the above
behaviors from failures to perform non-official duties and
other conduct. The statute is unambiguous. It defines the
explicit means by which one may be criminally liable for
obstruction and requires affirmative interference. Otherwise,
the outer contours of the statute would be difficult to
limit. For example, a defendant could be convicted of
obstruction for sitting on his couch and declining to respond
to the police officer's knock. Commentary from the Model
Penal Code supports the requirement of an affirmative act. To
find criminal liability under N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1 requires an
affirmative act or some affirmative interference. (pp. 11-13)
Fede's refusal to remove the already-fastened chain lock
required no physical effort; it was not an act. It would be
both counterintuitive and contrary to the plain meaning of
the term "affirmative," which requires effort, to
find that defendant affirmatively interfered with the police
by failing to remove an already-fastened chain lock from his
door. In Reece, officers responded after receiving a
dropped 9-1-1 call originating from Reece's home. 222
N.J. at 158. Once the Court established that the
officers' warrantless entry was lawful, it concluded that
the defendant's attempt to slam and lock the door on the
officers to prevent them from performing their official
function constituted obstruction. Id. at 172.
Specifically, the Court found that Reece attempted to prevent
the officers' entry "by means of . . . physical
interference or obstacle." Ibid. (quoting
N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a)). Here, Fede did not undertake an
affirmative act. His use of the ordinary door-chain-lock was
his standard practice, not a circumstantial reaction to the
officers' knock. As the testimony revealed, Fede did not
try to prevent the officers from breaking the chain, offering
no physical resistance once the officers broke the chain and
entered. Indeed, he complied with instructions to wait
outside his home while the search was conducted. Although his
refusal to remove the lock to allow the officers to perform
their necessary, lawful, and focused search is not an
advisable course of action and could have escalated the
situation, it was not criminal. There was thus no factual
basis for Fede's obstruction conviction under the
circumstances of this case. (pp. 13-17)
judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and
defendant's conviction is VACATED.
JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, PATTERSON,
FERNANDEZ-VINA, and SOLOMON join in JUSTICE TIMPONE'S