NJ Supreme Court Upholds the Sanctity of the Home

Last week, in State v. Vargas, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the “community caretaker exception” to the warrant requirement is not applicable to the home.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution asserts that an individual has the right to be free from unreasonable government intrusion in his (or her) “persons, houses, papers, and effects”. Meaning that governmental actors, such as the police, cannot invade a person’s home to conduct a search or seizure absent a warrant. As time has passed, the list of exceptions to this warrant requirement has grown significantly to include the community caretaker exception. This, in its application, has enabled the police to conduct a search or seizure of a vehicle, despite the lack of a valid warrant, if there is an apparent emergent need, and if doing so would otherwise be within his/her law enforcement obligations as a police officer. The issue then became whether this exception should also be expanded from vehicles to homes.

In Vargas, the police responded to a call from a concerned landlord, who stated he had not seen Vargas, his tenant, for a couple of weeks. Could his tenant be extremely sick? Could he be dead? The police proceeded to conduct a search of the home while Vargas was not at his home, without a warrant or authorized consent. Their search uncovered drug paraphernalia, which the government then turned around and used against Vargas in a subsequent criminal trial. Vargas was able to successfully suppress the evidence at the trial court, but upon appeal, the evidence was subsequently brought back in. Here, the Court believed that the officers were acting within their official capacity as law enforcers, and the evidence was properly obtained.

Police officers have a duty to protect and serve;but at what price? In New York, there has been much controversy over the “stop and frisk” policy. Last month, during a high school lecture I was conducting, I surveyed the class: “How many of you have been, or know someone who has been, frisked?” Almost everyone in the room raised their hand. Should we be willing to give up more of our individual liberties if it could result in less drugs and violence in our communities? The New Jersey Supreme Court has made it clear. Not when it comes to our homes. The sanctity of one’s home, must remain off limits from government interference, unless a warrant was issued or some type of exigent circumstance exists. Sorry officer, looks like you need to get your warrant.

State v. Vargas, 2013 N.J. Lexis 203 (N.J. Mar. 18, 2013).
Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 37 L. Ed. 2d 706, 1973 U.S. Lexis 48 (U.S. 1973).