On June 28, 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Cumberland County case of State v. Robert L. Evans. The principal issue concerned what circumstances justify a warrantless strip search.
Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Fernandez-Vina held in relevant part: The Court considers whether the “plain feel” doctrine justified a warrantless strip search under the circumstances of this case in light of the “Strip Search Act,” N.J.S.A. 2A:161A-1 to -10. On January 4, 2012, Officer Felipe Laboy of the Vineland Police Department began his evening shift by compiling a computer-generated list of outstanding warrants in the area. Defendant Robert L. Evans was on the list due to his failure to pay outstanding traffic fines, but Laboy knew only that Evans had an outstanding warrant, not what the warrant was for. After compiling the active warrant list, Laboy and his partner patrolled the parking lots of the Days Inn and Denny’s, which were areas known for narcotics, trespassing, and prostitution.
Just after midnight, Laboy saw Evans back his car into a space in the Days Inn parking lot and recognized him. Evans noticed the police presence and immediately drove out of the parking lot. The police pursued him. Laboy consulted his list, recognized Evans’s name, and decided to arrest him for his outstanding warrant. The patrol unit pulled Evans over, and he was unable to provide a driver’s license. Laboy placed Evans under arrest and then conducted a pat down search of Evans incident to his arrest.
During the search, Laboy found $2000 in cash in Evans’s pants pocket. He also noticed a bulge in the groin area of Evans’s jeans. In patting down that area, he felt a “rocklike substance.” Based on having felt similar objects “maybe over a hundred times,” Laboy believed the substance was crack cocaine. A sergeant arrived on the scene, and gave Laboy permission to transport Evans back to the station for a strip search. Between Evans’s pants and underwear were two plastic bags. One bag contained nine baggies of heroin; the other had two smaller bags of crack cocaine. The police secured a search warrant for Evans’s car, from which they later recovered a handgun loaded with hollow-point bullets.
The claim that the police did not know what Evans’s warrant was for is suspect. If it were for a serious and/or violent offense, as opposed to unpaid traffic tickets, it is difficult to imagine that they would not have been aware of that fact since the information was available to them and relevant to their safety.