On June 6, 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the case of State in the Interest of J.A. The principal issue before the Court was whether exigency of the hot pursuit doctrine justified the warrantless entry into the defendant’s home.
Justice Fernandez-Vina wrote for the 5-2 majority. He held in relevant part as follows: 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.
The phrase “without encouragement from the police” was probably elicited from the trial prosecutor at the suppression hearing. Otherwise, the defense could argue that the younger brother was acting as an agent of the police. That would create state action that is governed by our state and federal constitutions.