State v. Wright, A-4813-10T1; Appellate Division; opinion by Sabatino, J.A.D.; decided and approved for publication July 25, 2013. On appeal from the Law Division, Monmouth County, Indictment No. 09-11-2230. [Sat below: Judge Reisner.] DDS No. 14-2-0787 [52 pp.]

This appeal concerns the “third-party intervention” doctrine, often referred to as the “private search” doctrine, an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. In certain instances, New Jersey courts and various other jurisdictions have applied the doctrine to authorize the police to inspect or search a defendant’s property without a warrant, so long as the police do not exceed the scope of the private actor’s intrusion that led to the police’s involvement.

The trial court relied on this doctrine in denying defendant’s motion to suppress drugs and other incriminating evidence seized by the police from his girlfriend’s apartment. The landlord had entered the apartment at the girlfriend’s request to repair a leak. While he was there, the landlord observed drugs on a night stand and, in fear, he called the police. The police responded to the scene, were let into the apartment by the landlord, and confirmed his observation of the drugs and other contraband in open view. The girlfriend then arrived and the police secured her consent to a search of the apartment, through which they found a gun and other evidence of criminal conduct.

Making credibility determinations, the judge ruled that the police officer’s initial entrance into the apartment and his visual inspection of the night stand fell within the third-party intervention doctrine. The judge found that because the police officer’s inspection did not expand the scope of the landlord’s private observations of the property, the search did not fall within the ambit of the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Judge Reisner further ruled that defendant’s girlfriend’s consent to search her apartment was valid.

Following the denial of his motion to suppress, defendant entered into a plea of guilty to all counts of the indictment, preserving his right to appeal the suppression ruling. On appeal, defendant solely contests the denial of his motion to suppress. He argues that the warrantless police search of the apartment was unconstitutional and is not justified by the third-party intervention doctrine or any other warrant exception under the Fourth Amendment or the N.J. Constitution.

Held: The third-party intervention doctrine authorizing warrantless police searches of private residences is limited; the limitations were not violated in this case and the denial of the suppression motion and defendant’s conviction are affirmed.

Given the heightened protection that the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, paragraph 7 of the N.J. Constitution accord to the privacy of residential premises, the Appellate Division joins with several other courts in limiting the extent to which the third-party intervention doctrine may authorize warrantless police searches of private residences.

In particular, the doctrine does not apply in situations where the third party who provides the police with access to a dwelling has entered it unlawfully or otherwise in violation of the resident’s property rights or her reasonable privacy expectations. Apart from that limitation, the doctrine also should not apply if the totality of the intrusion by the private party and law enforcement officials is objectively unreasonable.

Viewed in light of the motion judge’s credibility findings, the record establishes that no such violation of the tenant’s reasonable privacy expectations or property rights occurred here. The landlord entered the apartment at the tenant’s invitation to address ongoing water damage and a potential health and safety hazard. He acted justifiably in letting the police into the apartment after observing illegal drugs within the premises in open view. It is also significant that the police did not go beyond the physical scope of the landlord’s entry into the premises until they first obtained the tenant’s valid consent to a full search of the premises. The conduct of both the landlord and the police in these particular circumstances was reasonable and did not offend the federal and state constitutions.

Consequently, the third-party intervention doctrine justifies the warrantless search that was performed in this case. The appellate panel affirms the trial court’s suppression ruling and defendant’s ensuing conviction.

For appellant — Frank J. Pugliese, Assistant Deputy Public Defender (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender; Sylvia Orenstein, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, on the brief). For respondent — Jeanne Screen, Deputy Attorney General (Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General).