PRECEDENT: NJ man refused to unlock his door for cops, NJ Supreme Court rules in his favor

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The state Supreme Court has tossed the obstruction conviction of a man who refused to unchain his apartment door for police investigating a domestic violence report.

The justices found that not taking an action didn’t amount to physical obstruction.

Cliffside Park cops knocked on Andrew J. Fede’s door in March 2014 while investigating a call about a “potential domestic violence situation,” according to the ruling issued Tuesday.

Fede partially opened the door, leaving the chain lock secured. He repeatedly refused to remove the chain when the officers explained they wanted to come inside and check on the well-being of anyone inside. Fede told them he was alone and asked if the officers had a warrant.

They had no warrant, the officers explained, but were permitted to enter under the “community care-taking doctrine.”

Officers even gave Fede the phone number for their supervisor, who also explained they had a right to enter. Fede still refused, according to the ruling.

Concerned that someone could be in danger, the officers broke the chain and entered the apartment. They asked Fede to wait in the hallway while they searched for occupants and he did as he was told, the justices noted.

The officers found no one else in the apartment, but arrested Fede for obstruction for failing to remove the chain lock.

Fede was convicted and he appealed. The appellate court upheld the conviction and Fede took the case to the Supreme Court.

Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Walter Timpone found that Fede’s refusal to remove the already-fastened chain was not an act of obstruction, since it required no actual effort on his part.

“His use of the ordinary door-chain-lock was his standard practice, not a circumstantial reaction to the officers’ knock,“ Timpone wrote “… Fede did not try to prevent the officers from breaking the chain, offering no physical resistance once the officers broke the chain and entered.”

The justices found Fede’s behavior unwise, but not illegal.

“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,” Timpone concluded.

The justices reversed the appellate court finding and vacated Fede’s conviction.

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