Pubdate: Thu, 11 Apr 2013
Source: Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)
Copyright: 2013 Newark Morning Ledger Co
Author: Salvador Rizzo


TRENTON - Police officers who are greeted at the door by someone 
puffing marijuana can force their way in to make an arrest, the state 
Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

Four Newark cops, working on a tip from a confidential informant in 
2008, were planning to go undercover to nab a drug dealer at the 
Riverview Court public housing projects. But they quickly blew their 
cover once the dealer, Rashad Walker, answered the door with a 
burning marijuana joint, according to the court record.

"Defendant appeared at the door smoking a marijuana cigarette," the 
court said. "Thus, a disorderly persons offense was being committed 
in the presence of police officers in the hallway of a public housing 
building, where the officers have a right to be."

The cops pushed their way in, arrested Walker and seized packs of 
marijuana, cocaine and "27 envelopes of heroin stamped 'Horsepower'" 
from the living room, according to the court record.

Walker, who served half of his six-year sentence before being paroled 
last year, had argued that the Newark police trampled his rights 
under the state constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. 
Constitution, which protect people from "unreasonable search and 
seizure" of their homes.

Police need to show "probable cause" and "exigent circumstances" - a 
high bar in most cases - to enter a home without a warrant. If ever 
there was a case that fit the bill, this was it, the state Supreme 
Court said in a 6-0 ruling, reversing an appellate decision that said 
a warrant was needed.

"Our holding is limited to the precise facts before us," Judge Ariel 
Rodriguez, who is temporarily assigned to the court, wrote in the 
decision. "We do not suggest that, had no one come to the door, the 
mere smell of marijuana would have justified a forced entry into 
defendant's home."

The tip from the confidential informant wasn't enough to get around 
the warrant requirement, the justices said. But since Walker tried to 
flee after being caught red-handed, the police had met the 
requirements to enter without a warrant, Rodriguez wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey said the ruling was 
worrisome, but mainly because it considers smoking marijuana to be a 
criminal offense, not because of the details of the case.

"It should be a civil penalty, as it is in some places," said Alex 
Shalom, policy counsel at ACLU-NJ. "Should we be entitling police 
officers to enter a private home simply because they saw you 
committing a disorderly persons offense? I think that's troubling."

Roseanne Scotti, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said 
the ruling "adds to a long line of state and federal jurisprudence 
which trashes the Fourth Amendment in the name of the war on drugs."

"Like a majority of Americans, I agree that the war on drugs has been 
an abysmal failure," she said.

The public defender's office, which represented Walker, now 29, 
declined to comment. The Attorney General's Office applauded the 
ruling but declined to take questions.
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