New Jersey Supreme Court Eases Requirements for “Plain View” Warrantless Searches & Seizures

John Roberts, Esq.
Arseneault & Fassett, LLP

A recent decision by the Supreme Court of New Jersey has made it easier for the State to use evidence seized without a warrant against a defendant in a criminal trial. In State v. Xiomara Gonzales, the Court changed the law as to what constitutes a valid “plain view” exception to the general warrant requirement.

The U.S. and N.J. Constitutions ensure an individual’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, law enforcement agents must obtain a warrant from a court before they can lawfully search an individual’s home or automobile. Evidence that is obtained in violation of this general rule cannot be used as evidence against that person in a criminal trial. There are exceptions to this general rule, however, including the “plain view” exception. Among other things, police had to discover the evidence “inadvertently” for the plain-view exception to apply under the previous law. If police had advance knowledge that the evidence could be found, the evidence seized without a warrant could not be used at trial.

However, since 1990, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, Federal law had a looser standard than New Jersey as to what factual conditions must be met for the plain-view requirement to apply. No longer.

In Gonzales, law enforcement was investigating an ongoing drug distribution enterprise. Wiretaps revealed that a drug transaction would take place at a suspected “stash house.” Police surreptitiously observed the transaction in which packages were loaded into Ms. Gonzales’s car. They followed Ms. Gonzales’s car as she drove away. After Gonzales committed several traffic violations, police pulled her over, ostensibly based only on the moving violations. During the traffic stop, police observed packages of heroin in the back seat area of her car. Gonzales was arrested and charged with drug offenses. The heroin was seized without a warrant and intended to be used as evidence against her.

Gonzales’s attorney filed a motion to suppress the drug evidence. Although the motion was denied at the trial court level, the Appellate Division reversed and granted the motion, reasoning that law enforcement’s prior knowledge that Gonzalez would be carrying drugs rendered the traffic stop a pretext and invalidated the “plain view” discovery and seizure of the heroin. The State appealed the decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

In its decision, the Court abandoned the prior New Jersey requirement that the discovery of evidence be “inadvertent” and instead followed the Federal standard. The Court reasoned that the inadvertence condition required courts to determine police officers’ subjective thoughts and beliefs at the time of the discovery. By not requiring inadvertence, the Court made the standard purely objective reasonableness rather than subjective state of mind. Now, contraband may be seized without a warrant when (1) the police officer is lawfully in the area where the evidence is seen and seized and (2) it is immediately apparent that the item is contraband or evidence of a crime. Through its decision, the Court brought New Jersey in synch with the law of the Federal government and a majority of states. The Gonzales decision applies prospectively – that is, only to future cases.

Anyone who has been charged with a criminal offense should obtain a criminal defense attorney. An experienced attorney who is aware of the latest developments in search and seizure law can help identify potential weaknesses in the State’s case which could support pre-trial motions to suppress evidence that has been obtained in violation of the law.

Kathleen Kelleher

View more posts from this author