Search Warrants and Warrantless Conduct (Part 3)

by | Feb 13, 2019 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

Justice Timpone continued in relevant part: Search warrants are prospective in nature—they authorize the taking of action. A later-obtained search warrant does not retroactively validate preceding warrantless conduct that is challenged through a suppression motion focused on the legitimacy of the seizure that gave rise to a later search. The State must bear the burden of proving the legitimacy of the seizure that led to a later warrant and search—in this case the stop.

Motor vehicle stops are seizures for Fourth Amendment purposes.  An officer may stop a motor vehicle only upon articulable and reasonable suspicion that a criminal or motor vehicle violation has occurred. Before trial, a defendant claiming to be aggrieved by an unreasonable search or seizure may apply to suppress the evidence seized, whether the search or seizure was executed with a warrant or constitutes a warrantless search. R. 3:5-7(a).

The proper mechanism through which to explore the constitutionality of warrantless police conduct is an evidentiary hearing.  At evidentiary hearings, the State presents witnesses to substantiate its basis for the challenged warrantless conduct, and the defense is afforded the opportunity to confront and cross-examine the State’s witnesses.  N.J.R.E. 104 hearings provide an opportunity to probe adverse evidence through cross-examination, and New Jersey courts have recognized the importance of the ability to question witnesses in case of factual disputes.

Here, there was clearly a dispute as to material facts, and that factual dispute directly related to whether defendants were in compliance with the traffic code. The trial court properly directed that an evidentiary hearing be held in order for the State to satisfy its burden of proving that reasonable and articulable suspicion supported the warrantless seizure of defendants’ moving vehicle. At the hearing, the State chose not to present any witnesses to justify the investigatory stop that preceded the application for a search warrant. But because the warrantless conduct of seizing defendants’ car was presumptively unreasonable and therefore invalid, the burden remained on the State to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that there was no constitutional violation. The State had to prove the reasonable and articulable suspicion to justify the initial stop. The statements in the warrant affidavit were not enough to carry that evidentiary burden. Defendants were entitled to cross-examine the officers who made those statements to test, among other things, the officers’ vision and perspective in observing the perceived traffic violation, as well as whether the MVR conflicts with the officers’ account.  The warrant affidavit is not a substitute for the officers’ testimony and therefore did not suffice to justify the stop.

The State likely did not want to bring in live police testimony in the face of contrary video evidence. Therefore, they attempted to carve out an extreme exception to the well-settled rule that material factual disputes must be resolved through a testimonial hearing.