Warrantless Searches and Abandoned Property (Part 1)

by | Mar 10, 2024 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On January 17, 2024, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the Essex County case of State v. Curtis Gartrell. The principal issue before the Court concerned whether the defendant had standing to challenge the search of property that the police searched without a warrant under an “abandoned property” theory.

Justice Solomon wrote for the 6-1 majority in relevant part: In this appeal, the Court considers whether defendant Curtis Gartrell, who fled from police outside of Newark Penn Station — leaving behind a suitcase containing handguns, ammunition, illegal narcotics, and cash — abandoned the suitcase and is therefore without standing to challenge law enforcement’s warrantless search of the bag. During the evening of November 6, 2019, an individual at Newark Penn Station reported to New Jersey Transit Police Officers that he had been punched by defendant. As officers spoke to defendant, there was a blue rolling suitcase near him. The officers ran a search for outstanding warrants against defendant. While waiting for the results of the record check, defendant had several phone conversations with a person he referred to as “Spoon” and “bro,” who defendant claimed was coming to pick him up.

Meanwhile, the results of the record check revealed an active warrant for defendant. Officers informed defendant of the warrant and advised him that they intended to place him under arrest. Defendant asked the officers whether he could first give his luggage — the blue suitcase — to “Spoon,” but they declined the request, stating they would first take defendant into custody. Defendant called out, “‘Spoon,’ will you get my clothes, bro,” and turned as if preparing to be handcuffed; he then fled from the officers on foot, leaving the blue suitcase unattended on the sidewalk. Officers apprehended defendant after a brief foot chase.

New Jersey has long recognized that our state constitution gives defendants automatic standing to challenge a search that leads to a possessory offense charge. The federal constitution does not provide defendants with the same protections.