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Drugs and doorsteps: when can officers search without a warrant?

People have an enhanced expectation of privacy in their own homes. The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed this important principle just last month, in a case about a drug-sniffing dog at the front door of a house. In a case called Florida v. Jardines, the Court held that this constitutes a search for Fourth Amendment purposes.

But what if someone comes to the door smoking pot? Earlier this month, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that when someone answers the door smoking marijuana, police officers are allowed to enter the home to make an arrest.

The New Jersey marijuana case involved four undercover officers from Newark who went to a residence in a housing project. Acting on a tip from an informant, they were seeking a suspected drug dealer. When the suspected dealer opened the door of the residence, he was smoking a marijuana cigarette - popularly known as a joint.

The police officers then entered the home without a search warrant and found other drugs. In addition to packs of marijuana and cocaine, there were was also heroin in the residence. The heroin was in envelopes.

The man was arrested on drug charges and convicted. He served three years in prison before being released on parole. But he continued to appeal his sentence, arguing that the search of his residence was unjustified on constitutional grounds. It was unconstitutional he contended, because the officers did not have a search warrant and there were no exigent circumstances to justify an exception to the warrant requirement.

An appellate court agreed. But the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the intermediate appellate court and upheld the man's sentence. The court was careful to note, however, that its ruling did not imply that merely smelling marijuana would permit officers to burst into someone's home.

Source: "Police can arrest people who answer door smoking marijuana, court rules," Newark Star-Ledger, Salvador Rizzo, 4-11-13

Please visit our page on the defense of drug charges.

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