On March 12, 2019, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Bergen County case of State v. Andrew Fede. The principal issue was whether the defendant could be convicted of obstructing the administration of law for failing to obey a lawful police order to allow entry by removing the chain lock on his front door.
Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Timpone held in relevant part: 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. Their last-resort breaking of the door’s chain lock to gain entry fell squarely within their community-caretaker duties prompted by exigent circumstances.
Charging defendant with obstruction, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a), for refusing to unchain the door lock, however, is a different matter. The police 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. In determining whether defendant’s actions fell within the statute’s proscriptions, we examine the terms of the statute in relation to the facts of this case.
Obstruction of justice is a catch-all that the police often charge in the absence of another relevant criminal charge. The same goes for the petty disorderly persons offense of “disorderly conduct” under N.J.S.A. 2C:33-2. A distinction between the two offenses is that disorderly conduct generally has to have an effect on the public, whereas obstruction can occur in a private residence.