The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares that individuals are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials. As to when such an unreasonable search or seizure occurs, case law has firmly established that absent certain expectations, a person's Fourth Amendment rights are violated whenever government agents fail to act pursuant to a lawfully executed warrant.
Interestingly enough, this issue was at the center of a case before the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, New Jersey's intermediate Appellate Court, involving a major drug sting in Jersey City.
According to the facts of the case, the Jersey City Police Department received a tip from a confidential informant back in 2015 that an individual, who we'll call Defendant 1, was using a minivan parked in a particular location to make drug transactions.
After receiving this information, officers set up a perimeter around the "stash location" and saw an individual, Defendant 2, enter the minivan for what appeared to be a drug deal. As the officers moved in to investigate, a siren was accidentally activated and both Defendant 1 and Defendant 2 promptly exited the vehicle, with Defendant 1 throwing the vehicle key over a fence.
Defendant 2 was subsequently found to have 30 bags of heroin in his shoe. As for the minivan, one officer indicated that he could see bricks of heroin -- the equivalent of roughly 500 bags -- through the window. Despite the absence of a search warrant, the officers proceeded to enter the minivan and seize the heroin.
At trial, Defendant 1's attorney sought to have the 500 bags of heroin suppressed owing to the officer's failure to secure a search warrant. For its part, the State argued that no warrant was required in this instance as the heroin was in plain view.
The Superior Court judge sided with the defendant, finding that since the police were aware of where the evidence was located in advance owing to the confidential informant's tip and that it could be reasonably inferred they intended to seize this evidence before even launching an investigation, a warrant should have been secured.
The two appellate court justices hearing the case agreed and affirmed the suppression of evidence in an unpublished decision handed down last week.
What cases like these serve to illustrate is that law enforcement can -- and does -- make mistakes. As such, it's imperative that anyone facing serious drug charges strongly considers speaking with a skilled legal professional who can conduct the necessary investigation and protect their constitutional rights.