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  • August 14, 2009

    Search and Seizure of Juvenile’s Possessions Deemed Lawful as Incident to his Arrest for Violation of Municipal Curfew Ordinance

    Actions of police officers are highly scrutinized in today’s society. One context in which officers walk a fine line is deciding when a lawful search and/or seizure can occur. Adding juveniles to the mix complicates things even more. However, a recent search and seizure of a juvenile in Hazlet, New Jersey makes at least one thing clear: a juvenile on the streets after curfew without proper identification is going to result in a valid search, and lawful seizure of any illegal or stolen property found during that search.

    Searches and seizures conducted both incident to an arrest and under other circumstances give rise to frequent debates as to their validity and appropriateness, based upon the particular situational facts. Searches and seizures regarding juveniles are included in that conversation, and can become increasingly complicated based upon the differences in the laws pertaining to acts of delinquency and adult violations. In the case mentioned above, which was recently decided by the Appellate Division, acts of juvenile delinquency were examined when a search and seizure of a juvenile’s possessions was upheld as a valid search incident to an arrest. The juvenile was detained for having violated a municipal curfew ordinance in Hazlet when the search and seizure produced a stolen wallet in the juvenile’s possession.

    In the case of State of New Jersey in the Interest of R.M., a Judge in the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey in Monmouth County found that the search and seizure was lawfully conducted incident to a valid arrest of a juvenile, and that the act of delinquency at issue, if committed by an adult, would have constituted receipt of stolen property. The trial court sentenced the juvenile to a one-year term of probation and imposed the statutorily mandated penalties. On appeal, the juvenile’s only argument is that the stop and search that revealed the stolen wallet violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment and Article I, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. The Appellate Division rejected that argument and affirmed the lower court’s decision, as well as the denial of the juvenile’s motion to suppress evidence.

    A major factor in this case was the determination that the police officer who encountered the juvenile at 2 a.m. on the streets of Hazlet in violation of the municipal curfew ordinance had the right to detain the juvenile and bring him to police headquarters in order to verify his identification, as he failed to produce proper identification at the scene, issue him a summons for the violation of the curfew ordinance and return him to his parents’ custody. The appellate court held that it was reasonable for the officer to believe that the wallet in the juvenile’s backpack would contain evidence of his identity and address, which would enable the officer to complete the performance of his official responsibilities regarding the ordinance violation. Furthermore, obtaining identification would also provide corroborative evidence that the juvenile was in fact under the age of eighteen and consequently subject to the curfew ordinance.

    The facts and circumstances surrounding a search and seizure are distinct in each instance. In the case described above, the police officer’s actions were deemed valid as part of a lawful search and seizure conducted incident to an arrest, which led to the discovery of stolen property and the juvenile being charged with an act of delinquency. The outcome could be quite different with a slight change in the circumstances. Nonetheless, the best advice for adults and juveniles alike is to always carry valid identification, and make sure it’s yours.

    Dana M. Lane is an associate of Hill Wallack LLP in the Princeton office where she is a member of the Litigation Division and the School Law and Municipal Law Practice Groups. Ms. Lane concentrates her practice in general litigation, municipal law, school law and labor and employment issues.