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The New Jersey Supreme Court has put judges and law enforcement officers on notice to go beyond boilerplate language in warrants for no-knock searches. “The police must articulate to the issuing judge the reasons why a no-knock warrant is necessary; mere conclusory statements or unsupported assumptions are not sufficient,” Justice Peter Verniero said in Tuesday’s unanimous opinion in State v. Andre Johnson, A-132-99. Chuck Davis, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, says the department sent a notice to prosecutors alerting them to the opinion and advising them to inform police departments about the need to articulate their justifications. Davis says it’s not known how many similar cases in the pipeline, if any, might be affected by the decision. Verniero wrote another unanimous search-and-seizure decision on Tuesday in State v. DeLuca, A-82-99, a quirky case that centered on whether police in a heat-of-battle search for the accomplice of a just-arrested armed robbery suspect could read the messages on the suspect’s pager. They could, the court ruled. Johnson appears to be the more important of the two decisions because it instructs law enforcement on what kinds of information are required to justify a no-knock search and says that evidence seized without such justification will be suppressed. Andre Johnson, nicknamed “Earthquake,” was arrested July 31, 1997, in a New Brunswick, N.J., home that police had plenty of reason to believe was being used as an illegal drug store. An informant had made a controlled buy at the house earlier. Detectives testified later that they felt a no-knock search was justified under precedents permitting such entry if an arrest can’t be effected otherwise, if there is concern for the safety of officers and neighbors or if there are fears that evidence will be destroyed. Because the warrant didn’t explain how those criteria were met in the North Brunswick search, the no-knock entry was illegal and the evidence was suppressed. The officers, for example, could have included on the warrant that the target had a prior conviction for aggravated manslaughter, and hence might be violent, or that the informant had seen weapons. “We do not suggest that judges must make detailed findings to support a no-knock provision,” Verniero wrote. “Nonetheless, there must be some indication in the record that the applying officer articulated his or her reasonable suspicions to justify the no-knock provision before the issuing court can consider and ultimately approve that form of entry.” Judges issuing such warrants can’t just assume that because there’s probable cause for a search, there’s also justification for a no-knock search, the court concluded. Absent a survey of police departments and municipal judges it’s impossible to know how often no-knock warrants are issued in New Jersey on the basis of bare-bones information. Assistant Deputy Public Defender J. Michael Blake, who argued the appeal, says: “My suspicion is that these warrants were often just given out.” Capt. Stanley Karbowski of the North Brunswick Police Department says, “Every judge has his own way of handling these warrants.” But after this decision, he says, “judges are going to scrutinize them; the officer is going to have to articulate his reasons.” Besides having his conviction reversed, Johnson can revel in his own ability as a lawyer. He made the successful argument in pro se pleadings before a counsel was assigned to him. That argument wasn’t renewed and Johnson pleaded guilty, but his appellate lawyers raised the issue in his appeal. EXIGENT CIRCUMSTANCES In the other search-and-seizure case, DeLuca, the court said it didn’t have to reach the issue of whether a search of a pager without a warrant is reasonable when it is contemporaneous with an arrest. In this case, the search was justified under the exigent-circumstances exemption to the warrant requirement. One evening in December 1995, Gino DeLuca was arrested on foot near a Millstone, N.J., food market he had attempted to rob. Shortly after police took him into custody, the pager they had seized from DeLuca registered the receipt of a page. An officer read the numbers on the pager, and those numbers led police to the accomplice. DeLuca sought to suppress the fruits of this warrantless search, but the police officer testified that he assumed that DeLuca’s pager could hold only a finite number of pages in its memory and that as a new page was received, the oldest page would be deleted. In agreeing that exigent circumstances justified the search, the court noted that shots had been fired during the robbery attempt so it was reasonable to assume the accomplice was armed and dangerous. And the police appropriately inferred that the income signal might be related to the robbery and that it would be lost if the numbers weren’t read immediately. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made the same decision in a similar case, United States v. Romero-Garcia, 991 F. Supp. 1223 (D.Or. 1997), aff’d, F.3d 502 (9th Cir. 1999).

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