In a landmark decision, the New Jersey Appellate Division has ruled that a police officer's warrantless entry into a person's garage to conduct a DWI investigation was unconstitutional, overturning a lower court's ruling and vacating the defendant's conviction. The published ruling, which sets a legal precedent for future cases statewide, held that the officer's entry into the garage without a warrant or exigent circumstances violated the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights, and that the evidence obtained as a result of that entry should have been suppressed.

On November 1, 2019, Hardyston Police received a 9-1-1 call reporting an erratic driver swerving and going over curbs. An officer was dispatched to the Jeep's registration address in an attempt to locate the erratic driver. Upon his arrival, the officer observed a Jeep in the driveway matching the description from the 9-1-1 call. The Jeep's brake lights were illuminated. 

The officer activated his overhead lights to effectuate a stop. The Jeep moved forward into the attached garage and stopped after the officer heard a "bang." He surmised the Jeep struck a refrigerator located in the one-car garage, which he characterized as "tight." The officer entered the garage and saw Mary Mellody sitting in the driver's seat.

The officer asked her "what she was doing, why she didn't stop when [he] activated [his] lights." He also "asked her why she crashed into her fridge." He noticed that her movements were "fumbled" and "slow" and that her eyes were "watery" and "bloodshot red." The officer smelled alcohol emanating from the vehicle.

The officer instructed her to turn off her engine and exit the vehicle so he could administer field sobriety tests. While performing the "walk and turn" test, Melody lost her balance and took an incorrect number of steps. She was also unable to perform the "one-leg stand" test. 

She was taken into custody and charged with DWI, careless driving, and failure to comply with the direction of a police officer.

The matter was first heard in municipal court.

Melody filed a motion to suppress the evidence.

The municipal court judge determined: 

[I]t is significant that when [the officer] arrives and puts on his lights that [defendant] then, while her car is operational drives into the garage and drives into a refrigerator. At this point, he doesn't—he's not sure what he's dealing [with] quite frankly, and I think he has an obligation, quite frankly, to investigate. Not only because there's an indication that she's driving erratically, but there may be a medical issue at stake. 

And I think there's probably a community caretaker function that is invoked under these circumstances.

The judge continued: 

If [defendant] was stopped in her vehicle, the vehicle's turned off and she exited her vehicle and went into her home I think under those circumstances the argument with respect to getting a search warrant has great validity. I think under those circumstance[s] . . . the police are obligated to get a search warrant. But not here. She's still in her car. The idea that she's not going anywhere, because that was an issue that was raised by [defense counsel], assumes that she's not going to back up, assumes she's not going to leave, and assumes that [the officer can tell her to stop.] Well, obviously that didn't work. When he put his lights on and she saw that [his] lights were on, and he activated some siren she then drove forward. I'm not going to say sped forward, but she drove forward and in such a way that she hit a . . . refrigerator. 

The judge noted the dashcam video "speaks volumes" and "shows somebody who's clearly intoxicated."

The judge ultimately denied the motion to suppress. Because this was Melody's second DWI conviction, she was sentenced to a two-year suspension of driving privileges, a two-year installation of an ignition interlock device after the driving suspension, forty-eight hours at the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center (IDRC), thirty days community service, and fines and costs. 

Melody appealed her convictions and sentence to the Law Division.

The Law Division affirmed the municipal court's ruling, agreeing that the officer had reasonable and articulable suspicion to effectuate a stop of defendant's vehicle.

The judge also concluded the officer lawfully entered the garage, reasoning: 

The combination of the erratic driving report coupled with [d]efendant driving her car after the patrolman engaged his lights and siren and then running into a refrigerator all raise seri[ou]s concerns for the health, safety and welfare of the driver that necessitate follow up action.

The judge concluded: 

[The patrolman] observed the [d]efendant crash her vehicle into the refrigerator. [The patrolman] further observed that the [d]efendant's movements were slow and fumbling; her speech was slow and slurred; and her eyes were bloodshot red and watery. Additionally, [the patrolman] smelled the odor of alcohol emanating from the [d]efendant's vehicle as she sat in it and the [d]efendant admitted to drinking two glasses of wine. Furthermore, when [the patrolman] attempted field sobriety tests on the [d]efendant, she was unable to follow instructions during the administration of the walk and turn test and she failed the one-legged stand test.

In a published ruling, Appellate Division Judges Currier, Firko and Susswein have just overturned the denial of the motion to suppress evidence and vacated the DWI conviction.

The lengthy decision highlights that the entry into the garage was not to render emergency aid but rather to make an investigation and arrest.

"To justify a warrantless search or seizure, 'the State bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that [the] warrantless search or seizure falls within one of the few well-delineated exceptions to the warrant requirement.'" State v. Vanderee.

Determining whether reasonable and articulable suspicion exists for an investigatory stop is a highly fact-intensive inquiry that demands evaluation of "the totality of circumstances surrounding the police-citizen encounter, balancing the State's interest in effective law enforcement against the individual's right to be protected from unwarranted and/or overbearing police intrusions." State v. Privott.

In State v. Evers, our Supreme Court stressed, "[t]he privacy interests of the home are entitled to the highest degree of respect and protection in the framework of our constitutional system." Applying this core Fourth Amendment principle, in New York v. Payton, the United States Supreme Court held that police cannot make a routine felony arrest in the arrestee's own home without an arrest warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement, such as exigent circumstances.


The special protections accorded to the home apply to defendant's garage.

For constitutional privacy analysis purposes, a garage is not just a place to shelter vehicles from the elements. The attached garage is part of her home, or at the very least, part of the home's protected curtilage. It makes no difference, moreover, that the garage door was open when the officer crossed the threshold. A large open door does not invite police to enter a garage without a warrant or recognized exception to the warrant requirement any more than an open sliding-glass patio or lanai door invites police to enter a family room. While an open door may, depending on fact-sensitive circumstances, expose to "plain view" certain contents of a garage, even then, police may not enter the garage based solely on the plain view observation of contraband inside. See State v. Johnson, "[T]he plain view exception does not authorize police to cross the threshold of a constitutionally protected place. The plain view doctrine does not apply, for example, when the officer has no right to enter a private residence."

Nor does it matter that the officer acted in good faith and may not have appreciated that entering the open garage was an act of constitutional significance qualitatively different from walking up to a vehicle stopped on the highway. We focus solely on the officer's conduct, not his or her subjective thoughts.

We add that this was not a fleeting or de minimus entry into defendant's home. Here, the officer entered the garage to execute an investigative detention, that is, to seize defendant. Even a brief entry of a home to effectuate the seizure of a resident is a significant constitutional intrusion. Police cannot conduct a warrantless entry into a home to detain a resident without consent or a recognized exception to the warrant requirement, such as exigent circumstances.

Our Supreme Court in Vargas, addressed "whether the community-caretaking doctrine authorizes the police to conduct a warrantless entry and search of a home to check on the welfare of a resident in the absence of the resident's consent or an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there is an emergency." The Court concluded, "[w]e now hold that the community-caretaking doctrine is not a justification for the warrantless entry and search of a home in the absence of some form of an objectively reasonable emergency."

Accordingly, it is clear that performing a community caretaking function does not constitute a standalone exception to the warrant requirement for purposes of authorizing police to enter a private residence. Rather, any such warrantless, nonconsensual entry is justified, if at all, only under the exigent circumstances exception.

In the matter before us, the State contends the entry into defendant's garage was lawful because the officer needed to determine whether the driver required "emergency aid," which is one of the well-delineated species of exigent circumstances.

In Vargas, our Supreme Court explained that: Under the emergency-aid doctrine, a police officer can enter a home without a warrant if [they have] "'an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency requires that [police] provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury'" and there is a "'reasonable nexus between the emergency and the area or places to be searched.'"

In this case, the officer's testimony does not suggest he acted with any special urgency consistent with rendering emergency aid. To the contrary, his testimony suggests he approached defendant's stationary (but running) vehicle in much the same way an officer would approach any vehicle stopped on a roadway on suspicion of drunk driving. Importantly, the officer did not begin the encounter by asking defendant if she needed medical assistance, either because of a medical condition explaining her erratic driving, or because of injury resulting from the "crash" into the refrigerator. Indeed, so far as the record before us shows, at no time during the encounter was defendant asked if she was alright.

The officer's account does not suggest he rendered "immediate" assistance as contemplated in Vargas. Rather, his candid testimony shows he entered the garage to conduct a DWI and careless driving investigation. We therefore hold that on this record, applying an objective test, the State failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the officer lawfully entered the garage to render emergency aid. Because the warrantless, nonconsensual entry into the garage portion of the private residence does not satisfy the exigent circumstances exception, the entry was unlawful.

"Under the exclusionary rule, evidence obtained in violation of an individual's constitutional rights will be excluded as 'fruit of the poisonous tree.'" State v. Roman-Rosado. "Those 'fruits' include not only 'tangible materials' seized, but also 'testimony as to matters observed' in the course of a Fourth Amendment violation." State v. Badessa.

The field sobriety tests and the officer's electronically recorded observation of defendant's physical appearance and demeanor occurred after the unlawful entry. Thus, they are fruits of that constitutional violation and must be suppressed. Accordingly, we reverse and vacate defendant's DWI conviction.

The winning attorney is Nicole Leigh Atlak Esq. of Caruso Smith Picini, PC.

Today's ruling is "published" which means that going forward, this is the law of the land in all courts statewide.

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