State v. Vargas, A-56 September Term 2011; Supreme Court; opinion by Albin, J.; dissent by Patterson, J.; decided March 18, 2013. On appeal from the Appellate Division. [Sat below: Judges Yannotti and Espinosa in the Appellate Division; Judge Telsey in the Law Division.] DDS No. 14-1-9325 [54 pp.]

In this appeal, the court must decide whether, consistent with the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution, 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.

In this case, a landlord called the police because he had not seen or been able to contact a tenant for two weeks. During the two-week period, the tenant’s garbage was not placed curbside, his mail accumulated, his car remained unmoved, and his monthly rent went unpaid. The landlord expressed concern for the tenant’s well-being, and the police entered the home without a warrant and conducted a "welfare check" because they "had reasons to fear for his safety." They found no one home and no signs of foul play. In the living room they saw a jar containing what appeared to be marijuana. The landlord opened kitchen cabinets and drawers and found what "appeared to be two canning jars full of marijuana." A warrant was then secured to search the apartment.

Vargas was indicted for various crimes involving money laundering, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, unlawful possession of firearms, and other offenses. Vargas moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that the police entered and searched his apartment in violation of the warrant requirement.

The trial court suppressed the evidence because the warrantless entry and search were not prompted by an objectively reasonable emergency. The court specifically rejected the state’s argument that the community-caretaking doctrine justified the warrantless search, finding that there was no objectively reasonable basis to believe that Vargas’ life or well-being, or the community’s safety, was in jeopardy. The trial court determined that there were no "exigent circumstances" to justify the warrantless search of Vargas’ home.

The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that the community-caretaking doctrine did not require an exigency to conduct a warrantless search; it only required that the police act reasonably and that the search was based on a legitimate concern for Vargas’ welfare.

The Supreme Court granted defendant’s motion for leave to appeal.

Held: 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.

Courts consider Cady v. Dombrowski to be the origin of the community-caretaking doctrine as an exception to the warrant requirement. Although the Supreme Court in Cady recognized law enforcement’s "community caretaking functions" in the context of an automobile search, the court did not suggest that community-caretaking responsibilities constituted a new exception to the warrant requirement that would justify the warrantless search of a home. The U.S. Supreme Court has never spoken of a community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement that would allow the warrantless entry of a home absent some exigency.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has applied the community-caretaking doctrine outside of the automobile-impoundment context. But when it has done so to justify a warrantless entry or search, the factual scenarios involved exigent circumstances — circumstances requiring immediate police action. Without the presence of consent or some species of exigent circumstances, the community-caretaking doctrine is not a basis for the warrantless entry into and search of a home.

The U.S. Courts of Appeals have split on whether the community-caretaking doctrine can justify a warrantless search of a home, but no circuit court suggests that the warrantless entry of a home is permissible in the absence of some form of exigency.

In this case, the trial court applied the correct legal standard and sufficient credible evidence in the record supports its decision. The police did not have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency threatening life or limb justified the warrantless entry into Vargas’ apartment. The Appellate Division erred by concluding that the community-caretaking doctrine justified the warrantless search of Vargas’ home, even in the absence of a "compelling need for immediate action." The evidence must be suppressed.

Because the warrantless entry and search and seizure in this case violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey State Constitution, the court reverses the Appellate Division and reinstates the trial court’s suppression order.

Justice Patterson, dissenting, does not consider the constraints that the majority imposes on law enforcement necessary to protect against unreasonable search and seizure. She considers the search in this case to be consistent with constitutional standards, and would affirm the Appellate Division panel’s decision.

Chief Justice Rabner, Justices LaVecchia and Hoens, and Judges Rodríguez and Cuff, both temporarily assigned, join in Justice Albin‘s opinion. Justice Patterson filed a separate, dissenting opinion.

For appellant — Wayne R. Powell (Wallace R. Wade on the brief). For respondent — Steven A. Yomtov, Deputy Attorney General (Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General).