In State v. Torres, 253 N.J. 485, 488 (2023), the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the trial court and Appellate Division decisions, which had concluded that the officers’ seizure of the defendant’s sweatshirt was justified under the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement.
During the investigation of an axe murder, police officers learned that the defendant, the victim’s stepson, was believed to have been in the house where the victim’s body was found on the previous night. Id. at 490. Within a few hours, the officers located the defendant and the victim’s missing vehicle in a heavily wooded area. Ibid. The defendant, who was a suspect at that point, was arrested on a separate outstanding warrant and transported to police headquarters for an interview. Ibid. The defendant signed the Miranda card and initially agreed to speak to the detectives. Id. at 491. However, at one point during the interview the defendant accused the detectives of “trying to pin” the killing on him and invoked his right to counsel. Ibid. As a result, the detective instructed the defendant to “sit tight,” and concluded the interview. Ibid.
However, during the interview, the detective observed that the defendant “had something on his hands,” and that he was “picking at his hands” and “rubbing his fingers.” Id. at 492. The defendant also “put his hands into his pockets,” and the detective “could see movement” in his pocket. Ibid. After the interview halted, the detective consulted other officers “about the preservation of biological evidence,” expressing concern “how delicate and fragile” such evidence could be and about “the enormous amount of blood” at the scene. Ibid.
Considering the anticipated time that it would take to obtain a warrant after business hours, the officers “decided to begin ‘processing’ defendant and collect his clothing before a warrant application was approved.” Id. at 494. At approximately 7:02 p.m., the officers seized the defendant’s sweatshirt, which he unzipped and removed without resistance or comment, collected the remainder of his clothes, photographed him wearing only his boxer shorts, and then told him that he was being charged with “hindering and resisting.” Ibid. The warrant to seize the defendant’s clothes was ultimately granted at 8:30 p.m. Id. at 495. At 12:30 a.m., criminal complaints for murder, obstructing the administration of law, and resisting arrest by flight were approved by the assistant prosecutor. Ibid. Laboratory testing later confirmed that the sweatshirt contained traces of the victim’s blood. Id. at 488.
The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the warrantless seizure of his clothing, finding that the “police did not act unreasonably under the circumstances in having defendant remove and exchange his clothing before the issuance of a warrant,” noting “the risks to the State of the loss of biological evidence on defendant’s hands and clothing as time passed, and the need ‘to secure [that] evidence under these exigent circumstances.’” Id. at 496. The Appellate Division ultimately affirmed, concluding that the trial court “properly concluded the search incident to arrest was constitutional and did not err in denying the suppression motion.” Id. at 499.
The Supreme Court first addressed, and then readily disposed of, the defendant’s argument that his sweatshirt should be suppressed under the Strip Search Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:161A-3, and the Attorney General’s Guidelines. Id. at 501. See Attorney General’s Strip Search and Body Cavity Search Requirements and Procedures for Police Officers (June 1995). The Court determined, as the Appellate Division found, that N.J.S.A. 2A:161A-3 and the Guidelines do not cover the police’s removal and seizure of the defendant’s sweatshirt because: 1) the defendant’s zippered sweatshirt, like a coat or a belt, is an article of “outer clothing” expressly excluded from the scope of the statute; and 2) removal of the defendant’s sweatshirt revealed neither the defendant’s nude body nor any undergarments. Ibid. The Court found that “[t]he fact that the police continued to remove other articles of clothing after obtaining defendant’s sweatshirt is irrelevant to the suppression of the sweatshirt as an item of evidence.” Ibid.
Turning to the search incident to arrest, the Court set forth that “[t]wo justifications underlie the search-incident-to-arrest exception: the need (1) ‘to remove any weapons that the [arrested person] might [possess and] seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect [an] escape’; and (2) ‘to search for and seize any evidence on the arrestee’s person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction.’” Id. at 503 (quoting Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 763 (1969)). In cases such as this one where the search was conducted before the warrant was issued, the Court endorsed and applied “the two-factor test of State v. Lentz, 463 N.J. Super. 54, 70 (App. Div. 2020), authorizing delayed warrantless searches of a person incident to that person’s arrest so long as both (1) the delay itself and (2) the scope of the search were objectively reasonable.” Id. at 489.
Applying the first Lentz factor, the Court found that there were “ample grounds to sustain the trial and appellate courts’ findings that the delay in performing the search of defendant’s body and clothes was reasonable.” Id. at 510. The officers saw the defendant “repeatedly picking at his fingernails and rubbing his hands on his clothes,” and there was an “ongoing risk that defendant could have dissipated the evidence, either in the interview room or during a washroom break. The officers had a legitimate concern that it might take considerable time to obtain an after-hours warrant.” Id. at 510-11.
Lastly, in applying the second Lentz factor, the Court found that the removal of the defendant’s sweatshirt was reasonable. Id. at 511. Thus, the Court affirmed “the well-reasoned decision of the Appellate Division rejecting defendant’s challenges to the search and seizure of his sweatshirt, in the totality of circumstances presented. The seizure of defendant’s sweatshirt was justified under the incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement and involved no unreasonable delay or excessive scope.” Ibid.
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