❌ A Paterson man convicted of distributing heroin has won his appeal

❌ The appeals court ruled cops unlawfully searched an abandoned property

❌ This is not the first time an appeals court has overturned a conviction for the unlawful search of an abandoned home

PATERSON — An appeals court has overturned the conviction of a man sentenced to prison for heroin possession and distribution, meaning he could go free nearly 14 years before he was set for release.

Michael J. Goodwin, 34, was convicted of drug and weapons offenses after an encounter with Paterson police in 2017. He was sentenced to 20 years in state prison with a release date of March 12, 2037.

However, an appeals court ruled on Thursday that the Paterson cops conducted an illegal search. The decision vacated Goodwin's conviction and sentence. The Passaic County Prosecutor's Office must now decide how to move forward with the case, including possible dismissal.

"The Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office is aware of the Appellate Division’s decision, and we will be reviewing all of our options," Deputy First Assistant Prosecutor Seth Galkin told New Jersey 101.5.

58 (left) and 56 Manchester Ave, Paterson in June 2018. (Google Maps)
58 (left) and 56 Manchester Ave, Paterson in June 2018. (Google Maps)

❌ Paterson cops search abandoned home

According to court documents, the incident began when four Paterson police officers with the narcotics division questioned a man who appeared homeless. The man emerged from the backyard of 58 Manchester Avenue around 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 17, 2017, and walked toward the street. The property appeared abandoned because it had been boarded up.

Two of the officers questioned the man while the other two walked to the backyard of the property. The man told the investigators questioning him that he was trying to meet up with his drug dealer.

While the interview was happening, Goodwin was spotted coming out of the back of the house next door at 56 Manchester Avenue. An officer noticed a silver handgun in his right hand and yelled out to the other officers, according to records. Goodwin then darted back inside the home and the same officer chased him, kicked down the door, and followed Goodwin upstairs where he was taken into custody.

Paterson police vehicle
Paterson police vehicle (Paterson police)

The officers found a silver handgun in Goodwin's waistband. Inside the home, they also found fifteen bags of marijuana, fourteen bricks of heroin, and three loose glassines.

However, the appeals court ruled Thursday that the evidence could not be used. The decision states that homes and backyards are protected spaces and cannot be searched without a warrant.

While abandoned properties can be an exception, the court ruled that there was not enough evidence that the property had been abandoned, adding that boarding up a home shows "intent by an owner to keep people off the property."

Additionally, the officer who saw the gun and kicked down the door was not one of the officers who interviewed the homeless man. The cop did not hear the man admit to being there to meet his drug dealer and had no solid reason to believe that there was a drug connection.

27 Christoph Avenue, Trenton in 2019. (Google Maps)
27 Christoph Avenue, Trenton in 2019. (Google Maps)

❌ Court precedent for searches of abandoned property

Another recent appellate decision in February set a precedent restricting police in some investigations involving abandoned property.

In 2018, two Trenton cops questioned a man standing by the front porch of a duplex home on Christoph Avenue that appeared abandoned. The house was in disrepair and had a dilapidated front porch, broken windows, and an overgrown lawn.

One officer walked onto the driveway of the property and saw a hole in the front porch. Inside the hole, the officer found a cigarette box and a glass vial believed to contain liquid PCP, an illegal drug. The man was arrested and later pleaded guilty to several drug offenses and was sentenced to five years in prison.

However, the appellate court found that the state did not prove that the property had been abandoned, only that it was severely neglected. Prosecutors also failed to show that the man was trespassing on the property.

By standing in the driveway to see the hole, the officer had searched the property without a warrant. The appeals court vacated the defendant's guilty plea and sentence.

Rick Rickman is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at richard.rickman@townsquaremedia.com

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