The New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued a major decision backing warrantless vehicle searches by law enforcement in many instances, reversing an earlier ruling and come down squarely on the side of broader police powers.
The 5-2 decision, issued in the case of State v. William L. Witt, grants NJ police officers wide latitude when it comes to deciding whether to conduct a vehicle search without first obtaining a search warrant.
In 2009, the NJ Supreme Court issued a very different ruling in State v. Pena-Flores, a consolidation of two criminal matters involving police searches that resulted in the discovery of handguns, marijuana and other illegal drugs. In that case, the court limited warrantless vehicle searches by ruling that, absent a search warrant, law enforcement was allowed to conduct a vehicle search only if the car’s owner provided consent or exigent circumstances demanded an immediate search. “Exigent circumstances” would be found to exist when police had probable cause to believe that the evidence would be destroyed, or moved, while law enforcement awaited the issuance of a search warrant or police believed that public safety would be put at risk by a delayed search.
The NJ Supreme Court Establishes a Different Standard to Justify Warrantless Vehicle Searches
The new case before the court dealt with a New Jersey man who been pulled over by a police officer while driving on Route 48 in Carneys Point, NJ in December 2012. The officer initiated the stop because the suspect reportedly “failed to dim” his light while passing the officer on the highway. When the officer later searched the suspect’s vehicle for evidence of alcohol consumption – the officer believed the suspect was intoxicated – and discovered a loaded handgun, the search was unrelated any suspicion about weapons possession. Although the officer had probable cause to search the vehicle for alcohol because the suspect had allegedly failed a field sobriety test, there was no reasonable suspicion that the suspect might be in possession of a handgun or other weapon.
The officer’s discovery of the weapon meant that the suspect faced felony charges for illegal handgun possession. When the suspect challenged the evidence during trial in Salem County Superior Court, the judge agreed with him; the evidence of handgun possession was declared inadmissible as “fruit of the poisonous tree” because, according to the judge, it had been obtained illegally through an unconstitutional search.
The case was appealed and eventually reached the NJ Supreme Court, which handed down a very different ruling. The court rejected the suspect’s arguments and declared that the police officer had performed a legal search – despite the fact that he had not obtained a search warrant prior to conducting the search and despite the fact that there was no reason to believe that the search needed to be performed immediately in order to preserve the evidence.
What the Decision Means for the Privacy Rights of New Jersey Residents
The NJ Supreme Court’s stunning decision will likely have significant consequences for police search & seizure procedures throughout New Jersey. While some might question the limitation of NJ residents’ privacy rights, the court has clearly come down on the side of broadening police powers to better enable law enforcement to preserve the peace. The decision also puts NJ law in line with current federal law, which already allows police to conduct warrantless searches of motor vehicles.
To learn more about the New Jersey Supreme Court’s recent decision, check out the NJ.com article entitled “N.J. Supreme Court expands police authority for warrantless car searches.” https://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2015/09/nj_supreme_court_expands_police_discretion_in_warr.html
Rudnick, Addonizio, Pappa & Casazza is a highly respected law firm and criminal defense team that represents clients charged with crimes throughout New Jersey. Our experienced attorneys have successfully challenged evidence in numerous cases. If you have been accused of marijuana possession, unlawful possession of a weapon or any other criminal offense in NJ, contact us today to discuss your case or schedule a free consultation.