Justice Timpone continued in relevant part: On remand, the parties presented no further testimony. Relying on the record as it had been developed at the suppression hearing, the court determined the inevitable discovery and the independent source doctrines both applied and that the evidence was admissible.
Defendant’s confession and the drug evidence must be suppressed. Under the third-party intervention doctrine, a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy is not violated by the actions or search of a private actor. See State v. Wright, 221 N.J. 456, 459 (2015). Fourth Amendment protections apply only to governmental action, and a subsequent search by law enforcement — so long as it does not exceed the scope of the private search — may not require a warrant if it does not infringe any constitutionally protected privacy interest that had not already been frustrated as a result of the private conduct. The doctrine traditionally applied to searches of objects either physically conveyed or reported to the police. See id. at 459, 468-69.
In Wright, the Court held that the doctrine could not be applied to searches of private dwellings — including rented apartments — under our State Constitution. Id. at 476. Although Wright discussed apartments, its reasoning applies with equal force to motel rooms. Where a motel owner or employee finds contraband in a guest’s room, “the police can use that information to obtain a search warrant and then conduct a search.” Id. at 478-79. “In the time it takes to get the warrant, police officers can secure the motel room from the outside, for a reasonable period of time, if reasonably necessary to avoid any tampering with or destruction of evidence.” Id. at 478. Here, the motel search was unconstitutional and the illegal fruits of that search must be suppressed.
This case is a win for the defense and privacy advocates in that it requires the police to obtain a warrant before they can search for and seize something that a private citizen uncovered and reported. However, when warrants are granted, it remains very difficult to prove that a private citizen was acting as an agent of the police in conducting their own warrantless search.