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Court Expands Police Authority to Conduct Warrantless Searches of Your Car

Posted by Greg DeMichele | Nov 10, 2015 | 0 Comments

It just got much easier for the police in New Jersey to search your car.

The New Jersey Supreme Court's recent decision in State v. William L. Witt undoubtedly expands police authority to conduct warrantless searches in automobiles.  In this case, the police stopped the defendant's car because he did not dim his high beams as he passed a police car stopped on the side of the road.  According to the police officer, the Defendant appeared intoxicated and was asked to exit his car. The Defendant failed a field-sobriety and balance test and was arrested for driving while intoxicated (DUI). The Defendant was then handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car, while the police officer searched his car for an “open container.” During the search, the police officer found a handgun in the center console. The defendant was subsequently charged with second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm and second-degree possession of a weapon by a convicted person. The Defendant moved to suppress the gun on the ground that the police conducted an unreasonable search in violation of the New Jersey Constitution. Defendant's sole argument was that the police did not have exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless search of his car.  Until now, the standard for conducting warrantless searches in an automobile was set forth in State v. Pena-Flores, 198 N.J. 6 (2009), which required “exigent circumstances” to perform a warrantless search.

The Court reversed itself and ruled that the exigent-circumstances standard set forth in Pena-Flores is unsound in principle and unworkable in practice. Citing Article I, Paragraph 7 of New Jersey's State Constitution, the Court returned to the standard articulated in State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211 (1981) for warrantless searches of automobiles, which authorizes the warrantless search of an automobile when the police have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of an offense and the circumstances giving rise to probable cause are unforeseeable and spontaneous. In State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211 (1981), the Supreme Court of New Jersey upheld the constitutionality of the search of the defendants' car based on the United States Supreme Court's then-articulated automobile exception to the warrant requirement. In doing so, the Court stated that “the exigent circumstances that justify the invocation of the automobile exception are the unforeseeability and spontaneity of the circumstances giving rise to probable cause, and the inherent mobility of the automobile stopped on the highway.” Id. at 233. However, in State v. Cooke, 163 N.J. 657 (2000), the Court announced that, under Article I, Paragraph 7 of New Jersey's State Constitution, the warrantless search of a vehicle could only be justified based on exigent circumstances in addition to probable cause. Pena-Flores reaffirmed the standard enunciated in Cooke, and declared that “the warrantless search of an automobile in New Jersey is permissible where (1) the stop is unexpected; (2) the police have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime; and (3) exigent circumstances exist under which it is impracticable to obtain a warrant.” 198 N.J. at 28. The Court further set forth a multi-factor test to guide police officers in determining whether exigent circumstances excused the securing of a warrant, and encouraged the use of telephonic and electronic warrants as a means to meet the constitutional challenges of roadway stops. (pp. 21-32). The Court's recent decision State v. William L. Witt establishes a new law to be applied prospectively. Consequently, going forward, the exigent-circumstances test in Cooke and Pena-Flores no longer applies, and the standard set forth in Alston for warrantless searches of automobiles based on probable cause governs. Essentially, this means the police can search your vehicle without a warrant during a lawful traffic stop. Traffic laws are always evolving and the consequences of conviction on charges resulting from traffic stops – including DWI and possession – are severe including possible fines, loss of license, or even incarceration. Don't take a chance with your life! If you or someone you know is facing charges in a New Jersey Municipal Court, contact the municipal court defense lawyers at DeMichele & DeMichele today. We are here to defend the charges against you. Contact us now for your confidential and free initial consultation. You can also reach us by telephone (856) 546-1350. _____

About the Author

Greg DeMichele

Gregory P. DeMichele is a seasoned litigator, devoting the majority of his practice to municipal court, personal injury, residential real estate, and family law matters. Greg has helped countless clients navigate challenging cases in municipal, Superior Court, and Appellate Court proceedings.


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