State v. Andrew J. Fede 3/12/2019

The Case:

In March of 2014 two police officers from the Cliffside Park Police Department were dispatched to a multi-family building in a response to a potential domestic violence situation.

Two officers arrived and knocked on the door of the defendant’s apartment. The defendant did partially open the door which remained secured with a chain lock. The officers identified themselves and informed the defendant they were there to investigate a domestic disturbance. They sought entry into his home to check the welfare of the occupants. The officers learned that the defendant lived in this home with a female named Stephanie. The defendant explained to the officers that she was away in South Carolina and he was alone in the apartment.

As the conversation between the officers and the defendant continued, it became more contentious. The defendant asked if they have a warrant. The officers explained they were acting under the community caretaking doctrine and were permitted to enter his home without a warrant to ensure the welfare of the occupants. The defendant demanded a warrant. He remained at the door in view of the officers but refused to unchain the lock. The officers attempted to defuse the situation and provided the defendant with the phone number of their supervisor. The defendant did speak to the supervisor who confirmed the reason the officers were seeking entry into the home. None of the officers were able to convince the defendant to unchain the door.

Due to the concern about the possibility of a domestic violence situation, the officers broke the chain and entered the apartment. The defendant was instructed to move into the hallway of the building, which he did. He remained outside of the apartment, in the hallway, while the apartment was searched.

Bench Trial: A bench trial was held in the Municipal Court. The trial court found the officers had an objectively reasonable basis to enter the defendant’s apartment due to the report of a domestic violence situation furthermore, the court noted that the defendant had a legal obligation to admit officers into his home. The court found the defendant’s refusal to unchain his lock so the officers could enter an obstacle for the purpose of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a).

First Appeal: On the first appeal, a Law Division judge affirmed the conviction. The judge concluded that because the defendant had “purposely prevented” officers from gaining entry into his home by “refusing to unchain his door,” he “created an obstacle, which prevented the police from performing their official function.”

Further Appeal: On further appeal to the Appellate Division, the panel affirmed the Law Division’s holding, additionally relying on State v. Reece, 222 N.J. 154 (2015).

HELD: The Court stresses that the police officers had the right to enter defendant’s home under the emergency-aid doctrine, which permits warrantless entry under circumstances like those presented in this case. Because defendant’s refusal to remove the door chain did not constitute an affirmative interference for purposes of obstructing justice within the meaning of the obstruction statute, the Court reverses the judgment of the Appellate Division and vacates defendant’s conviction.

The court went on to address, as a preliminary matter, the appropriateness of the officers’ action in breaking the door’s chain lock. Among their extensive duties, police officers serve a vital community-caretaking role. In this role, they are given the latitude to make a warrantless entry into a home under the emergency-aid exception to the warrant requirement. Where, as here, a report of domestic violence provides the police with an objectively reasonable basis to believe an emergency exists inside the home, a warrantless search is permitted for the limited
purpose of ensuring the welfare of the occupants in the home. The police officers at the heart of this matter acted properly and professionally under the emergency-aid doctrine in breaking
the chain lock to enter defendant’s apartment in order to ascertain the validity of reported allegations of domestic violence within the apartment.

Charging defendant with obstruction for refusing to unchain the door lock, however, is a different matter. The police’s having the right to enter Fede’s home does not lead to the conclusion that Fede’s refusal to remove the chain from the lock on his door constituted obstruction within the meaning of the criminal obstruction statute.

To violate N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a), a person must not only “purposely obstruct, impair or pervert the administration of law” but must do so through one of the specifically enumerated acts in the statute, through “physical interference or obstacle,” or through an “independently unlawful act.” In its second sentence, the statute specifically distinguishes the above behaviors from failures to perform non-official duties and other conduct. The statute is unambiguous. It defines the explicit means by which one may be criminally liable for obstruction and requires affirmative interference. Otherwise, the outer contours of the
statute would be difficult to limit. For example, a defendant could be convicted of obstruction for sitting on his couch and declining to respond to the police officer’s knock. Commentary from the Model Penal Code supports the requirement of an affirmative act. To find criminal liability under N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1 requires an affirmative act or some affirmative interference.

Fede’s refusal to remove the already-fastened chain lock required no physical effort; it was not an act. It would be both counterintuitive and contrary to the plain meaning of the term “affirmative,” which requires effort, to find that defendant affirmatively interfered with the police by failing to remove an already-fastened chain lock from his door. In Reece, officers responded after receiving a dropped 9-1-1 call originating from Reece’s home. 222 N.J. at 158. Once the Court established that the officers’ warrantless entry was lawful, it concluded that the defendant’s attempt to slam and lock the door on the officers to prevent them from performing their official function constituted obstruction. Id. at 172. Specifically, the Court found that Reece attempted to prevent the officers’ entry “by means of . . . physical interference or obstacle.” Ibid. (quoting N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1(a)). Here, Fede did not undertake an affirmative act. His use of the ordinary door-chain-lock was his standard practice, not a circumstantial reaction to the officers’ knock. As the testimony revealed, Fede did not try to prevent the officers from breaking the chain, offering no physical resistance once the officers broke the chain and entered. Indeed, he complied with instructions to wait outside his home while the search was conducted. Although his refusal to remove the lock to allow the officers to perform their necessary, lawful, and focused search is not an advisable course of action and could have escalated the situation, it was not criminal. There was thus no factual basis for Fede’s obstruction conviction under the circumstances of this case.

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the defendant’s conviction is VACATED.

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