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A Win for a Cop - and Common Sense

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In State v. Hathaway, the New Jersey Supreme Court, reversed the Appellate Court and ruled that the police in this case did not violate the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution by doing a warrantless search of a casino hotel room where a suspected armed robbery had just taken place. 

The victim reported to casino security that he had been robbed at gunpoint in a room on the hotel's 70th floor. The security officers observed the victim on video and found him to be "credible based on their experiences with others victims 'robbed at gunpoint.'" The victim never identified himself and left shortly after reporting the crime. The security officer called Police Officer James Armstrong and based on the information given by several security officers and their supervisor, Officer Armstrong asked that the security team contact hotel surveillance to confirm the victim's story. Officer Armstrong did not personally review the footage because he feared that an armed gunman might be on the 70th floor. The casino personnel confirmed the victim's account and that there might be two or more people still in the room. Believing that he was "working against time," Officer Armstrong and a SWAT team went to the 70th floor to the room of the suspected armed robbery. After no one answered a phone call to the room, the officers noticed that the door was slightly open, opened it and called into the room, but again there was no response. Uncertain whether a person may be hurt or that the gunman could possibly still be there, the Officer Armstrong and the SWAT team went into the room with guns drawn and checked for victims or a gunman. No one was there, but they saw a "wide open" duffel bag with a handgun in it. Hotel security determined that the room belonged to the "victim" and he was arrested later that day when he returned and charged with second-degree unlawful possession of a weapon.

At his trial, the victim/defendant asked the judge to suppress the gun on the grounds that it was obtained during an unconstitutional search. The judge ruled that the police did not have "probable cause" or "exigent circumstances" to justify entering and searching a hotel room without a warrant. The trial court suppressed the weapon and the Appeals Court agreed.

The Supreme Court thought otherwise. It concluded that the trial court "viewed the events through the distorting lens of hindsight rather than viewing those events as they appeared to an objectively reasonable police officer who had to make mediate decisions in the face of a credible threat to the safety and lives of others." Under the emergency aid doctrine, a prosecutor must show: "(1) the officer had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency require[d] that he provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury and (2) there was a reasonable connection between the emergency and the area or places to be searched."

The Supremes first decided that information from an ordinary citizen passed from officer to officer is still reliable in knowing whether exigent circumstances allows prompt, warrantless action. Second, even though the "victim" did not identify himself and fled the scene before Officer Armstrong arrived, his report of the crime face to face with casino personnel, knowing there were security cameras, he had more credibility than an anonymous tipster. Also, Officer Armstrong went through the necessary steps of an officer under the time constraints of a potential gunman on the loose to verify the victim's story with the surveillance department. Thus, the first part of the "emergency aid" test was satisfied.

Next, the Supreme Court decided that the second part was also met because a "reasonable inference" could have been drawn by the circumstances was that there could have been an injured victim or a gunman could have been hiding in the room, since the door was partly open and the police called in with no answer. Although the scope of the search of the room was confined to looking for victims or the gunman, the gun found was in plain view and, thus, should not have been suppressed.

With the collaboration of Kieu-Nhi Le, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016. She is the Managing Business Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal.

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