Little Falls police conducted an illegal search when they swept Christopher Radel’s home for weapons in 2016, the state Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, throwing the man’s 25-year prison sentence into doubt.
The decision upheld a lower court ruling that said a group of seven police officers had no business searching Radel’s house when they arrived to arrest him on an outstanding warrant. Police nabbed Radel in his driveway, but continued into his house despite not having a warrant to enter. Inside, the officers found enough guns and drugs to indict Radel on 88 criminal counts.
Such a search is unconstitutional, the state Supreme Court wrote, and strikes at the heart of the U.S. Constitution’s 4th Amendment protections against "unreasonable search and seizure."
“One of the most valued of all constitutional rights is the right to be free from unreasonable searches of one’s home,” according to the decision. “Because of the special status of the home in our constitutional jurisprudence, the warrantless search of a home is presumptively unreasonable.”
Radel pleaded guilty in August 2019 to two counts of illegal gun possession. As a repeat offender, a Passaic County judge sentenced him to consecutive prison terms totaling 25 years, and at least 12½ years before he's eligible for parole.
It was unclear how the decision will impact Radel’s sentence. The ruling kicked the case back to the trial court in Passaic County for further hearings.
The Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office did not respond for comment.
Little Falls police surrounded the Browertown Road house on Jan. 7, 2016 in search of Radel, who eight months earlier had been convicted of unlawful possession of a handgun in Passaic County Superior Court. As a felon guilty of illegal gun possession, he was required to turn in every firearm he owned, but still possessed multiple weapons including a Beretta handgun, according to the decision.
Authorities arrived with a court order to arrest Radel on two active municipal warrants and to retrieve the firearms, but lacked a search warrant on the home, the ruling states. After Radel was taken into custody in his driveway, three officers entered the house for a “protective sweep,” a warrantless search allowable only under the most stringent circumstances when law enforcement fear for their safety.
The three spotted several weapons and drug paraphernalia around the house, and returned with a search warrant to seize the contraband, according to the decision. In all, the probe yielded seven rifles, two shotguns, four handguns, including a crossbow and butterfly knives, along with more than 50 grams of marijuana and $8,320 in cash.
The trial court upheld the controversial search despite legal challenges from Radel, finding the officers had a reasonable expectation that someone other than Radel was inside the home and possibly armed. While staking out Radel’s home, officers claimed they heard a loud noise from the backyard that sounded like a gunshot, spotted an extra car in the driveway and noticed “the movements of an individual” in the house. No one else was inside when they returned with the search warrant.
New Jersey’s Supreme Court has broadened the definition of a protective sweep, according to the court documents, if the cops are lawfully on the premises for a "legitimate purpose" or there is a "reasonable suspicion that the area harbors an individual posing a danger.”
But the fear Little Falls police had that an unknown person in Radel’s house could have launched a surprise attack from the door or window amounted to nothing more than a “hunch,” according to the ruling.
“Entering a home to conduct a protective sweep when an arrest is made outside a dwelling should be the rare circumstance, in light of the special constitutional protections afforded the home,” the decision states.
The decision remanded the case for the trial court to determine whether, excluding the information gathered during the unconstitutional sweep, enough facts were presented in the warrant affidavit to justify the search warrant.
Tom Nobile covers Superior Court in Bergen County for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from criminal trials to local lawsuits and insightful analysis, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Little Falls NJ: Chris Radel search illegal, NJ Supreme Court rules