Illegal Search & Seizure: The Scope of Inventory Searches in New Jersey

The Law office of Randolph H. Wolf recently represented an individual charged with possession of under 50 grams marijuana in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10a(4), a disorderly persons offense, as well as third-degree possession of heroin in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10a(1).  Upon approaching the client’s car, the officer alleged that he detected a strong odor of raw marijuana emanating from the interior of the vehicle.  After the officer informed the client of the odor of marijuana, the client indicted that he had a bag of marijuana, which he then handed to the officer.  The officer then ordered the client out of his vehicle and placed him under arrest for possession of marijuana.  The officer then performed a search incident to arrest (a valid exception to the warrant requirement) of the client’s person, which yielded negative results. 

The officer thereafter transported the client back to police headquarters, where he performed a second warrantless search of the defendant’s person in the booking area.  During this search, the officer found several bags of heroin.  The State relied on the inventory search exception to the warrant requirement to justify the warrantless search.  That exception allows officers to remove and inventory property found on the person of an arrested person who is to be jailed.

Randolph H. Wolf recently filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained, arguing that the inventory exception did not justify the jailhouse search of the defendant.  Randolph Wolf argued that, because the client was arrested for the minor disorderly persons offense of possession of marijuana, he was presumptively entitled to be released upon issuance of a summons, rather than being detained.  Thus, the warrantless jailhouse inventory search was without justification, as the client was not going to be incarcerated and was therefore constitutionally impermissible.

Pursuant to New Jersey Court Rule 3:3-1, a summons rather than an arrest warrant “shall be issued” except in six designated situations.  The first situation deals with certain specified serious crimes, such as murder, kidnapping, robbery, and sexual assault, none of which were applicable here.  Among the other reasons for allowing the issuance of a warrant rather than a summons are, “reason to believe that the defendant is dangerous to self, other persons, or property,” R. 3:3-1(c)(3), situations where “the defendant’s identity or address is not known and a warrant is necessary to subject the defendant to the jurisdiction of the court,” R. 3:3-1(c)(5), and where “there is reason to believe that the defendant will not appear in response to a summons.” R. 3:3-1(c)(6).  Moreover, even if bail was to be required, rather than release on personal recognizance, a full body search should be precluded until the individual has been given a reasonable opportunity to post bail.

Randolph Wolf argued that, because none of the listed exceptions were applicable, it was mandatory that a summons issue.  The court has not yet ruled on the motion to suppress.  If the court grants defendant’s motion, the evidence obtained as a result of the illegal search – the heroin – must be suppressed.  As a result, the third-degree possession of heroin charge would most likely be dismissed.  If you feel as though you have been subjected to an illegal search or seizure, contact Randolph Wolf, who has more than 30 years of criminal defense experience, today at 732-741-4448.