Illegal Search When Police Did Not Get a Warrant Before Searching a Decrepit Building

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On January 29, 2014, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided State v. Derrick Brown, finding that a decrepit house in Camden is not automatically abandoned and the police need a warrant to search the house.

In this case, the State Police had been conducting a narcotics investigation of possible drug sales occurring at 820 Line Street in Camden. This house was described as a destroyed row house, with boarded up houses on either side. At this decrepit house the front door was locked with a padlock, one of the two front windows was broken, the rear door was off the hinges and propped closed. The electric meter was missing from the house outside of the house and there were no light fixtures inside the house. Through the front broken window, the State Police trooper could see trash bags filled with old clothes and aluminum cans laying around the living room. In short, the house looked to be falling down.


The State Police decided that the house was abandoned and anyone inside must be a trespasser, so they did not ask a judge for a search warrant. The State Police went into the decrepit house and found sawed-off rifle inside a floor air vent and drugs and drug paraphernalia on a shelf above the stairs to the basement. The attorneys for the people who were charged with these crimes claimed the search was illegal.

In New Jersey, the prosecution must prove that the search was legal or else the judge will suppress the evidence. A search without a warrant is illegal unless the prosecution can justify the search to the judge.

In this case, the prosecution claimed the house was abandoned. If the house had been abounded, then the defendants in New Jersey would not have any standing to complain about the search and the search might have been legal. The Appellate Division, however, concluded that the prosecution had not proved that the building was abandoned. The Appellate Division pointed out that the troopers did not even check the recorded deeds to see who was the owner of the property and did not try to determine whether the owner had abandoned the property. The State Police assumed the decrepit property was automatically abandoned and decided they did not need a search warrant. As a result, the Supreme Court found that the prosecution had not proven the property was abandoned.

Similarly, the prosecution tried to show that the people inside were squatters. In New Jersey, trespassers do not have any standing to complain about the search and the search might have been legal. The Court said if the police had an objectively reasonable basis to believe a person was a trespasser, the police could search the residence. Again, the Court pointed out that the State Police only looked at the decrepit state of the house and decided it must be abandoned and anyone inside a trespasser.

In New Jersey, the police must have a warrant to search a residence unless they can prove an exception, such as the property was abandoned. Decrepit property is not automatically abandoned, so the police would need to prove the property was abandoned before searching the residence. When the police search illegally, the evidence is excluded and cannot be used to prove any crime.

You should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately to discuss any questions or concerns about search and seizure of evidence.

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