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People involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals for extended stays have privacy rights, and police generally must obtain a warrant before searching their rooms, a split New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Thursday. The court voted, 4-3, to void the arrest of an Ancora State Psychiatric Hospital patient charged with drug offenses after police officers, investigating the death of his roommate, found Xanax tablets hidden in the hospital room’s curtain. Justice Peter Verniero, writing for the slim majority, said hospital rooms are akin to homes and not cars or offices, where the expectation of privacy is lower. He was joined by Justices James Coleman Jr., Virginia Long and James Zazzali. Justice Jaynee LaVecchia dissented, joined by Chief Justice Deborah Poritz and Justice Gary Stein, saying the search was warranted by the totality of the circumstances and that patient William Stott’s privacy rights were not violated. Stott was involuntarily committed on Sept. 23, 1997, after having attempted suicide. He was diagnosed with an opiate-induced mood disorder and depression. On the night of Oct. 2, 1997, Stott and his roommate, James Hilliard, ingested heroin and two Xanax tablets each before going to bed. Hilliard was found dead in the morning, and another patient said Stott kept Xanax tablets in the curtain hem. Without obtaining a warrant, the officers searched Stott’s room and found four tablets in the hem. Verniero, quoting State v. Johnson, 168 N.J. 608 (2001), said it was generally recognized that a person has a greater expectation of privacy in a home than in a car, where broader search powers are conferred on law enforcers. One’s privacy rights are “nowhere more clearly defined” than in the home, he said, quoting Kornegay v. Cottingham, 120 F.3d 393 (3d Cir. 1997). “With those concepts in mind, we accept as a basic premise that a hospital room is more akin to one’s home than to one’s car or office,” Verniero wrote. The patient’s length of stay also may be relevant, he added. “Containing a bed, curtains, a nightstand, and defendant’s personal wardrobe, defendant’s room had many of the attributes of a private living area and, by our reading of the record, had served as such a place throughout defendant’s occupancy,” Verniero said. Thus, Stott had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Prosecutors argued that police had a right to conduct a warrantless search because of exigent circumstances and the chance that something might happen to the tablets before police could get a warrant. The majority disagreed, noting that neither Stott nor any other patient was in the room and that the door was locked. The ruling, said Verniero, should not be interpreted to mean hospital personnel cannot search a patient’s room without a warrant to ensure that patients don’t hurt themselves or others. Stott’s lawyer, Blackwood, N.J., solo Salvatore Principato Jr., says the court filled a void in case law and made an important distinction between police and hospital-staff searches. Michael Sullivan, a partner at Morristown, N.J.’s McElroy, Deutsch & Mulvaney who argued amicus on behalf of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, agrees. “When the police come knocking, that’s different,” he says. “This is a victory for the warrant requirement.”

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