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N.J. Supreme Court: Traffic warrant isn’t enough for police to pursue man into neighboring home

Prosecutors had argued the “hot pursuit” exception negated the need for a warrant


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By Kevin Shea

NEW JERSEY — The New Jersey Supreme Court on Wednesday vacated the gun possession conviction of a man state troopers chased into a neighboring home during the planned arrest of another person.

The troopers did not have an arrest warrant for Steven Bookman, only a traffic ticket arrest warrant for a man standing next to him on a Camden Street in November 2017. That was not enough to pursue and ultimately arrest Bookman, who had a handgun in his pocket, the court said.

The high court found several problems with the events surrounding Bookman’s arrest, but stopped short - as Bookman’s lawyers had argued - of creating a “bright line” rule on how police execute arrest warrants in traffic cases.

“Although we are disturbed by the manner of execution of this warrant, we decline to adopt a rigid, one-size-fits all approach to the execution of all [traffic] arrest warrants because interactions between police officers and the public are inherently unpredictable and may give rise to tragic consequences,” the court wrote in an 5-0 decision.

Prosecutors argued the “hot pursuit” exception negated the need for a warrant.

The decision overturns an appellate court ruling that found no difference between an arrest warrant issued by a judge for a criminal offense and a warrant issued by a municipal court judge for a traffic case.

The Supreme Court said there is a difference.

An “arrest team” of eight troopers went to the Camden street at 1 a.m. after getting a tip that the subject of a motorcycle theft investigation of theirs was selling drugs in front of his house. The troopers did not have nor did they apply for an arrest warrant for the alleged drug activity.

They did have a warrant to arrest the man issued by the Deptford Township Municipal Court, issued for failing to appear for a matter four months earlier.

When the troopers arrived, Bookman was standing next to the subject of the warrant and both ran at the sight of the officers and fled into a home next door to the subject they were there to arrest. Troopers followed them inside and one found Bookman face down with his his hands stretched out. He asked Bookman if he had any weapons, and he said yes, a knife and gun.

The person with the traffic warrant was not part of Bookman’s appeals.

Bookman’s lawyers argued at trial, and in a later appeal, that the officers needed a warrant to enter the neighboring home, and the “hot pursuit” exception did not apply.

The high court agreed, first saying that the traffic warrant allows police to enter the subject’s home, if necessary, not a neighbor’s home. And, the “hot pursuit” doctrine applies in cases only when police believe a person might destroy evidence or cause imminent threat of harm.

Bookman running from the cops does not allow the troopers to invoke the rule, and the situation that followed was all caused by troopers “unreasonably” executing a traffic warrant, the court said.

They knew the traffic warrant was for a minor offense, but executed it at 1 a.m. in a residential neighborhood with eight troopers on an “arrest team” and unreasonably pursued Bookman, “a man who was neither named on the [traffic] warrant nor suspected of being involved in any criminal activity,” into the home of a third party without an applicable warrant, it said.

Police, the court reminded, cannot rely on exigencies they create.

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