The criminal investigation process is designed to protect the rights of people and suspects who have not been charged with crimes, while still allowing law enforcement officials to do their jobs. For this reason, the law dictates that police officers must obtain warrants before entering a person’s home, car or other private area, and they must follow certain procedures when executing search and seizures for suspected criminal activities.
Only in rare, heavily documented circumstances can police perform a search and seizure without first obtaining a warrant, and these circumstances must meet the legal criteria for probable cause before police can lawfully arrest or charge a suspect with criminal activity as a result of the search.
If that sounds complex, that’s because such situations usually are. Police can act immediately if they suspect that someone is in danger or they have evidence to support a conclusion that criminal activity is taking place.
But if this evidence is weak or insufficient to excuse the officer from obtaining a warrant, the entire course of the investigation can be changed and any criminal charges that resulted from that search could be dismissed completely. It is important to know your rights as a New Jersey resident in any criminal investigation.
Recently, two Appellate Court judges overturned Peter Samuell’s guilty plea for marijuana possession, for which he was sentenced to 541 days in jail, because the drug charges stemmed from an unlawful search and seizure that an officer performed without a warrant.
In April of 2011, the Trenton police department received an anonymous tip that shots had been fired and illegal weapons were being held in a residence where Samuell was staying as a guest.
Officers surrounded the home, which had a fenced-in backyard where three pit bulls and one bulldog were chained. The officer near the fence testified he caught a faint whiff of marijuana. When the homeowner opened the back door to let the dogs in, the smell grew stronger.
Based on the odor, the officer climbed the fence and initiated a search of the house, the backyard and the porch. Police found packaged marijuana, marijuana plants and weapons. Crawford and Samuell were arrested. At the trial, the judge ruled that the police action was based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, which allowed them to search the house without a warrant.
But the Appellate Court reversed this decision, because the “reasonable…suspicion of criminal activity does not authorize the police to enter private property to further their investigation,” according to state law. Jumping the fence—which designated the backyard as private—was unlawful and any evidence seized as a result of that action (the marijuana plants and packages) could not be used to press criminal charges.
Know Your Rights
Criminal charges based on an illegal search and seizure can be fought in court. Your rights take effect the moment a police officer enters your home, workplace or vehicle, and extends throughout the investigation. If you feel that your case has been mishandled or your rights have been violated, contact a New Jersey criminal attorney at Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA. We will help you fight charges that resulted from illegal processing or searching.