Police May Search Home Without Warrant Following A Fire – State v. Amodio

Yesterday’s Appellate Division opinion in State v. Amodio is the first time a New Jersey court of appellate authority has had the opportunity to review the limitations placed on police when they respond to the scene of a residential fire. In Amodio, the police went to the scene of a major fire at the defendant’s residence. The police found the defendant badly burned on the front lawn of the property. The defendant’s clothing was cut from his body by emergency medical personnel so he could be treated for his burns. The police immediately seized the clothes. Once the fire was extinguished, two fire inspectors examined in the inside of the home, looking for the cause of the blaze. During their search, they uncovered the bodies of an adult female and a child. In the area near the bodies, the inspectors recovered evidence that tended to show that the female had been killed by blunt force trauma. Their search also yielded evidence that an accelerant had been used to enhance the effects of the fire. The police did not seek a formal search warrant for the residence until the following morning when additional evidence of arson and murder was recovered.

The Appellate Division ruled in conformity with two United States Supreme Court decisions that police who investigate a fire have the right to remain on the scene and search for its cause for a reasonable period of time without obtaining a search warrant. Apart from putting out fires, fire fighters and police have a duty to determine the cause of fires. In making these determinations, they may conduct searches and seize any incriminating evidence that they locate in plain view. In this case, the police were not required to obtain a search warrant when the bodies were discovered because the investigation into the cause of the fire had not been completed.

The Court also ruled that the seizure of the defendant’s clothing without a search warrant was proper as well. The exigent circumstances surrounding the emergency medical treatment of the defendant, coupled with the possibility that the clothing might contain incriminating trace evidence that would be useful to the police justified the seizure without a warrant.

Download a copy of State v. Amodio.

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