A reader called our attention to a New Jersey Supreme Court case, State v. Rashad Walker a/k/a Derrick Moss, which is curious as a search and seizure decision.
A tip led police to Walker’s apartment, where they had been told a black man was dealing drugs. They were preparing to elicit a purchase as proof, and Walker, a black male, answered the door smoking a hand rolled cigarette, and one of the officers immediately recognized the smell of marijuana. He identified himself as police, Walker tossed the cigarette into the apartment and attempted to slam the door; one of the officers prevented the door from closing, and pursued, recovering the cigarette, arresting Walker, and once inside the apartment observing and confiscating other drugs which were in plain sight. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled this month that the search was valid, reversing the appellate court decision which had excluded the evidence taken in the apartment. Our correspondent’s question: it seems obvious that the officers did everything right, so how did the appellate court reach a different decision?
The answer is primarily found in State v. Hutchins, 116 N.J. 457 (1989), along with the holdings in the U.S. Supreme Court case Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 104 S. Ct. 2091, 80 L. Ed. 2d 732 (1984) and a few other cases. It turns on whether the police were justified in entering Walker’s home to arrest him for a minor offense (possession of a small quantity of marijuana), and in both of those cases they were not. Hutchins is the more important; Welsh matters as the basis for Hutchins.
Welsh was a U. S. Supreme Court decision in which Wisconsin police in response to a tip that a man was driving erratically entered his bedroom and arrested him for drunk driving. The court ruled that prior to reaching his bedroom the police had probable cause only sufficient for a reckless driving charge, a minor offense under Wisconsin law, and that entering someone’s home to arrest him for a minor offense without a warrant was a violation of the protections intended by the Fourth Amendment. That evidence might be lost (the suspect’s intoxication) was insufficient.
In Hutchins, New Jersey police were acting on a tip very similar to the one in Walker, that a black man was selling drugs from an apartment. A black man answered the door, and police stated that one hand was clenched in a manner that might be hiding an illegal substance. When he saw that these were police, he attempted to close the door, and the police forced their way inside, saw illegal substances in the apartment, and arrested him. The search of the apartment was deemed illegal because the tip was insufficient for probable cause to search or arrest, and the fact that a man has his hand clenched around something (which might as easily have been money to pay the pizza delivery boy) is not evidence of a crime. Although Hutchins might well at this point destroy evidence, that is an exigency created by the police, which invalidates it.
In Walker, police saw the hand-rolled cigarette and smelled marijuana, so had probable cause to arrest for the very minor offense of possession of a small quantity, but not for searching the apartment. The appeals court thought that when Walker retreated into his apartment and attempted to close the door, the police could not enter the apartment to arrest him for a minor offense (Welsh) and therefore could not follow him for an exigency they created (Hutchins).
Obviously the New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed. What distinguished this situation is first that Walker was observed committing a crime, albeit a minor one, by smoking what was identifiable as marijuana, and that he attempted to throw the evidence into the apartment and flee immediate arrest into that apartment. Police were justified both in pursuing a fleeing criminal and in following the path of the discarded evidence of the minor crime that might be destroyed if not recovered. Once they were inside the apartment legitimately, the rest was valid.
Walker’s mistake was trying to escape into his home with the evidence immediately after police had witnessed the crime and knew that he knew this. He gave them the right to recover the evidence he threw into the home and, being informed that he was under arrest and fleeing custody, to follow him. Those details make it different from Hutchins and Welsh, allowing the police to enter into evidence what they discovered after entering the home in pursuit of the suspect.