Two cases were brought before the New Jersey Supreme Court last month, and both raised the question of who can legally allow police and law enforcement officials inside to search a home or dwelling space that they do not live in. In both cases, the defendants had previously entered guilty pleas for weapons violations, but then asked to withdraw these pleas, claiming that the searches conducted by police were in violation of their constitutional rights. Criminal lawyers in New Jersey say that the Supreme Court’s ruling establishes authority between relatives in a family member’s residence.
In State v. Coles, Camden police investigated Byseem Coles for his suspected involvement in a May 2009 robbery. Before placing Coles under arrest, police officers detained him in a police car outside of his residence, while officers searched his home for evidence. At the time, Coles paid rent for a room in his aunt’s home, and his aunt gave the officers permission to search the space. The search turned up shotguns, a rifle, and several boxes of ammunition, which were later used to charge Coles with weapons violations.
In court, judges questioned why Coles was detained in the first place, and why police asked his aunt for permission to search the room that belonged to him. The Deputy Attorney General said that officers had considered the aunt “the head of the household,” but the appeals court dismissed this explanation, instead granting the aunt a position of authority similar to landlord.
According to Assistant Deputy Public Defender Daniel Gautieri, “a landlord does not have the authority to search a premises. That [authority] only exists in a parent-child relationship or guardian-and-child.” He claimed that the searching officers had failed to establish whether Coles paid his aunt rent, which made him an independent tenant rather than a dependent in his aunt’s household. Now that the case is before the state Supreme Court, justices must decide in which living circumstances that paying rent grants a tenant the right to privacy.
In the second case, State v. Lamb, police searched the trailer of a man suspected in a shooting. Michael Lamb’s car was discovered outside of the trailer where he lived with his family, and officers attempted to search the home. After an altercation with Lamb’s stepfather, police persuaded Lamb, who had been hiding under a bed inside, to come out of the trailer, and placed him under arrest. Lamb’s mother allowed the officers to search the trailer, where police found a handgun, with one shot missing.
In Lamb’s case, Justice Barry Albin noted the extenuating circumstances in the search—there were three young children in the trailer where the police found the loaded gun. Several justices construed the officers’ actions in this case to be acceptable because of the “probable cause.”
Criminal attorneys in New Jersey say that the state Supreme Court will be debating the legitimacy of both searches in these investigations, and they hope that the final ruling will provide a clear understanding of who can grant permission to search another person’s property, whether that person is a parent, other family member, or landlord.
If you have been charged with a crime, and believe that the police may have gained improper access to your home, contact the criminal attorneys at New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, for a consultation today.