The Effect on the Appellate Division of a Split in Federal Decisions on a Constitutional Issue

State v. Witczak, 2011 WL 1364012 (App. Div. April 12, 2011).  This blog usually is allergic to criminal decisions.  But this criminal case involved a virtually even split in the federal Circuit Courts of Appeal on whether the “community caretaker exception” to the requirement of a search warrant applies to a warrantless search of a home.  Judge Fasciale’s opinion for the panel contains a very useful review of how, if at all, a federal Circuit split affects the Appellate Division’s decision on a constitutional issue.  That discussion applies to civil and criminal cases alike.

“While we are not bound by lower federal court decisions involving either constitutional or statutory interpretation, we do give such decisions due respect in an attempt to create ‘judicial comity’ and avoid forum shopping.”  Lower federal court decisions are not binding on the Appellate Division because “state courts and the lower federal courts have the same responsibility and occupy the same position; there is parallelism but not paramountcy for both sets of courts are governed by the same reviewing authority of the Supreme Court.”  Where a United States Supreme Court decision contains an unclarified ambiguity, the Appellate Division remains “free to adopt our own view of its holding, unconstrained by opinions of federal courts of appeal.”

Defendant urged that the Appellate Division should follow a recent Third Circuit decision.  Judge Fasciale concluded, however, that “[w]e are bound only by the Supreme Court of the United States, which, as we have noted, has not addressed the split in the views of the federal circuits, and our own Supreme Court, which has applied the community caretaker exception to warrantless searches of the home.” 

The panel distilled the Supreme Court of New Jersey’s precedents in this area into three core principles.  The Appellate Division then found the facts to be insufficient to show that the police had satisfied those criteria in this case.