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Warrantless Vehicle Searches

Getting your vehicle searched can be lengthy, and in some cases unwarranted. A previous court ruling put into place that officers had to have probable cause to call in for a telephonic warrant to search a person’s vehicle. This was said to be a process that should take only 30 mins, but it was becoming apparent that it was taking much longer than this, leaving the police officer and vehicle occupants in serious danger from the passing vehicles on the roadway. To avoid these situations, officers would use a form requesting the driver of the vehicle to sign consenting to a search; this form was used significantly more with minority motorists. Police officers present this document in such a way that motorists feel they have no option but to consent to a search. It is the motorists right to refuse to sign the form and request a warrant be presented in order to search the vehicle, but as of September 24, 2015 this is no longer the case. A new ruling was put into place deeming it allowable for police officers to do warrantless searches as long as the officer feels there is probable cause to consider the vehicle to be containing contraband or evidence of crime. This new ruling rejects the standard in place from the previous ruling which is not in line with the U.S. Supreme Court Standards, based on the Fourth Amendment, because the State of New Jersey feels it is inconsistent with the state constitution.

This new ruling will make it much easier to conduct vehicle stops and searches in New Jersey. Meaning more arrests will be made for criminal charges in situations where a search may have been considered unlawful and unwarranted.


NJ High Court Reverses Itself on Warrantless Vehicle Searches

, New Jersey Law Journal


The New Jersey Supreme Court has made it easier for police to conduct warrantless vehicle searches, overturning its own six-year-old standard that required both probable cause and exigent circumstances.

In a 5-2 ruling in State v. Witt, the court found that the standard it set in the 2009 case State v. Pena-Flores is unworkable and has led to a situation where too many motorists who were stopped along the state's roads were being asked by police to sign forms consenting to a search of their vehicles. In the Sept. 24 ruling in Witt, the court reverted to a standard set in 1981, which allows the warrantless search of a vehicle when police have probable cause to believe that it contains contraband or evidence of a crime and where circumstances giving rise to probable cause are unforeseeable and spontaneous.

When the court set the exigent circumstances standard in Pena-Flores, it expected that the ruling would encourage police to obtain telephonic warrants to reduce the length of roadside stops, and that the ruling's multi-factor test for determining whether exigent circumstances exist would be helpful to police. But those expectations "have not come to pass," the court said.

The multi-factor exigency formula is "too complex and difficult for a reasonable officer to apply to fast-moving and evolving events that require prompt action," the court said.

And the process of securing telephonic warrants has resulted in "unacceptably prolonged highway stops," increasing the risk of serious injury or even death to vehicle occupants and police officers from passing traffic, the court said.

In returning to the standard it set in 1981 in State v. Alston, the court said it has adopted "a standard that is more in line with the jurisprudence of most other jurisdictions, yet still protective of the right of citizens to be free of unreasonable searches."

But the court's decision runs counter to the position of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Bar Association and the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, which participated as amici and urged the court not to overturn Pena-Flores.

Justice Barry Albin wrote the court's opinion, joined by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justices Anne Patterson, Faustino Fernandez-Vina and Lee Solomon. Justice Jaynee LaVecchia dissented, joined by Judge Mary Catherine Cuff, temporarily assigned.

The court found the exigent-circumstances standard from Pena-Flores to be "unsound in principle and unworkable in practice." But in rejecting that standard, the court declined to adopt the U.S. Supreme Court's standard for automobile searches under the Fourth Amendment, which it found inconsistent with the interests embodied in Article I, Paragraph 7 of the state constitution. In its return to the Alston standard, the court said it believes its requirement for unforeseeability and spontaneity does not place an undue burden on law enforcement.

"Clearly, the use of telephonic search warrants has not resolved the difficult problems arising from roadside searches, as the court expected when it decided Pena-Flores," the court said. "We adopt this approach under our state constitution because it is a reasonable accommodation of the competing interests between the individual's right to be free from unreasonable searches and law enforcement's investigatory demands."

But LaVecchia disagreed strongly with the majority.

"This is not a proud day in the history of this court," LaVecchia said in her dissenting opinion. "Through perseverance in seeking the reversal of a disliked decision with which the state made desultory, if any, efforts to comply, the attorney general has been rewarded on the basis of a wholly inadequate and unpersuasive record. Indeed, that reward is a direct result of the attorney general's persistence leading to a majority now willing to effect this jurisprudential change."

After it issued Pena-Flores in 2009, the court established a Special Committee on Telephonic and Electronic Search Warrants, which issued a report in January 2010. The committee expressed concerns about danger to police officers and cars' occupants resulting from long stops on the shoulders of heavily traveled highways, and about a drain on police manpower from such lengthy stops. It said telephonic search warrants should be completed in no more than 45 minutes, with a goal of 30 minutes.

After the report was issued, the Administrative Office of the Courts conducted a study in Burlington County which determined that telephone search warrant applications took an average of 59 minutes, and a separate report by the State Police said such applications took an average of one-and-a-half to two hours. The State Police also said that since Pena-Flores, its use of consent-to-search requests rose from 300 per year to over 2,500 per year. The State Police also said motorists granted consent to search in 95 percent of cases.

The majority in Witt expressed concern about the increasing use of consent searches, noting the "coercive effect" of such a request to a driver stopped at the side of the road. The court also raised concerns about the potential for abuse, citing a 1999 report of a federal monitor of the State Police finding consent searches were used on a "grossly disproportionate" basis with minority motorists.

But LaVecchia criticized the majority's conclusion that telephonic warrants were difficult to obtain, based only on the Burlington County study. She also said the state presented no evidence that improvement on the average time to obtain a telephonic search permit was impossible or unlikely.

Acting Attorney General John Hoffman said in a statement that the decision in Witt announced a "clear and workable rule," adding that, "by this ruling, the court has achieved an appropriate balance between protection of citizens' constitutional rights and the paramount need for public protection and officer safety." The state was represented before the Supreme Court by assistant attorney general Ronald Susswein.

Assistant deputy public defender Stephen Kirsch, who represented defendant William Witt before the Supreme Court, said he and his client were "very disappointed" by the ruling, which he called "an unfortunate departure from a well-established standard."

The case stems from the 2012 traffic stop of Witt in Carneys Point for failure to dim his car's high beams, according to court documents. Witt appeared intoxicated and was placed under arrest after failing sobriety tests. After placing the suspect in his vehicle, the arresting officer searched his vehicle for alcoholic beverages and found a handgun in the center console.

A trial judge suppressed evidence of the gun, and the Appellate Division affirmed, citing an absence of exigent circumstances to conduct a warrantless search. The state moved to appeal.

In affirming the Appellate Division, the Supreme Court said its new rule of law would only be applied prospectively.

If you are stopped and searched under these new standards or under the consent of a warrant and charged with a criminal offense, contact Simon Law Group for help today!