The U.S. Constitution has long held that the government needs a warrant to seize property considered illegal, but there are exceptions to the rule.
One of those exceptions is the plain-view doctrine that allows police to seize illegal property without a warrant if it is in plain view of the officers.
The plain-view doctrine in New Jersey only worked if three conditions were met: the officer was there legally; the property was immediately identifiable as illegal; and the officer came upon the property inadvertently.
It was that third part — what’s known as the “inadvertence” requirement — that the New Jersey Supreme Court struck down this week, joining the federal government and nearly all the states in doing away with the rule.
“That requirement was removed from the Fourth Amendment [by the United States Supreme Court] back in the early ’90s, and most states have removed that requirement,” said Frank Muroski, a New Jersey deputy attorney general. “But, in New Jersey, it was still a requirement.”
This week’s ruling came after an appeal by Xiomara Gonzales, who was pulled over for traffic violations on the Garden State Parkway in 2009.
Police had been tailing Gonzalez because an ongoing investigation indicated that she was part of a drug ring in North Jersey. After she exceeded the speed limit, turned left on red, and passed through a toll without paying, police pulled her car over.
When an officer approached Gonzales’ car, he saw heroin spilling out of blue bags in the back seat. Police arrested Gonzales and seized the drugs.
Gonzales claimed that because officers heard on a legal wiretap that she would be transporting drugs, cops pulled her over under the pretext of a traffic violation in order to search for the drugs. She claimed that officers did not find the drugs “inadvertently.”
The state Supreme Court ruled that while the arresting officer may have suspected Gonzales had drugs, he came upon them “inadvertently” because they were spilling in the backseat.
But they further held that the inadvertence requirement was no longer needed as part of the plain-view doctrine, because “it requires an inquiry into a police officer’s motives” rather than setting an objective standard.
Opponents said the ruling leaves decisions that should be made by the courts — such as obtaining a warrant for a seizure of illegal property — up to police officers.
“The warrant protection is the avenue the Constitution provides to ensure that police officers’ intuitions are subject to a neutral review by a magistrate,” said Rebecca Livengood, the Skadden Fellow at the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
New Jersey is not alone in scrapping the inadvertence requirement. The federal government and all but two or three states allow law enforcement to seize illegal property that’s discovered inadvertently or not.
David Rudovsky, prominent civil rights attorney and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the inadvertence requirement is not usually a major issue in most Fourth Amendment cases.
“You don’t see a lot of cases where the inadvertence requirement becomes a significant factor,” said Rudovsky. “In other words, it’s not the most significant issue in the search and seizure area nationwide.”
The ruling applies to all warrantless seizures in New Jersey in the future, but it does not apply to past cases.