In the United States, many of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today are derived from the U.S. Constitution. In the criminal justice system, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is one of the most important and frequently cited doctrines and protects an individual’s right to privacy by limiting the circumstances under which law enforcement officials are allowed to search or seize materials from an individual’s home, property or person.

Fourth Amendment Protections

Under the Fourth Amendment, a police officer cannot lawfully engage in a search and seizure operation unless one of three conditions applies:

  1. An individual provides consent
  2. A police officer obtains a valid search warrant
  3. A police officer has probable cause to believe that an individual committed a crime

Absent one of these conditions, any evidence-whether it be a confession, firearm or illegal substance-that is discovered or seized by a police officer cannot be submitted as evidence in court or used against an individual during criminal proceedings.

State v. Gonzales

A recent ruling by New Jersey’s Supreme Court, concerning a warrantless search and seizure operation, has raised concerns among many privacy and civil rights advocates within the state.

The ruling stems from a 2009 traffic stop which resulted in a female driver named Xiomara Gonzales being arrested and charged with racketeering, conspiracy and drug distribution. At the time of the traffic stop, Gonzales was under police surveillance for her alleged participation in a suspected drug distribution ring.

Immediately prior to her arrest, law enforcement officers testified that they observed Gonzales putting several blue bags, which they believed to contain heroin, into the backseat of her vehicle.

When Gonzales failed to pay at a toll booth, police officers pulled her over. Upon approaching her vehicle, officers reported seeing a white powdery substance spilling out of the blue bags that were in the vehicle’s backseat. Gonzales was arrested at the scene despite the fact that police officers did not have a search warrant nor did they obtain Gonzales’ consent to search the vehicle.

New Jersey’s Plain-View Doctrine

Under New Jersey’s plain-view doctrine, police officers are allowed to lawfully conduct a search and seizure operation without a search warrant or an individual’s consent if the following three conditions apply:

  1. The officer has a legal right to be at the scene
  2. The material in question is obviously illegal
  3. The discovery of the material is inadvertent or unplanned

The Inadvertence Requirement

In this case, defense attorneys claimed that the police officers who were conducting the surveillance operation pulled Gonzales over with the knowledge and intention that they would discover illegal drugs. Therefore, the discovery of the drugs in the vehicle’s backseat could not be categorized as inadvertent. Failing to meet the inadvertence requirement, defense attorneys argued that any evidence that was discovered during the unlawful search and seizure operation should be deemed inadmissible. While the trail court denied the defense’s motion to suppress evidence, that ruling was reversed on appeal and sent to the state’s Supreme Court to decide.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court of New Jersey cited police officers’ statements that the drugs were clearly visible as they were spilling out of the bags in which they were contained. Further, the court ruled that the inadvertence requirement of the plain-view doctrine is no longer valid as “it requires an inquiry into a police officer’s motives rather than setting an objective standard.”

While the federal government and most states have done away with the inadvertence requirement, until this ruling, New Jersey’s remained intact and provided an additional safeguard against unlawful searches and seizures.

Individuals who face criminal charges related to evidence that they believe was discovered during an unlawful search and seizure, should contact a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.