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NJ Supreme Court Decision Broadens Police Authority to Conduct Warrantless Vehicle Searches

The NJ Supreme Court recently reversed itself on an earlier ruling and increased police authority to conduct warrantless searches of motor vehicles in certain instances.

The 5-2 decision was issued last week in the case known as State v. William L. Witt. The court’s ruling means that law enforcement in New Jersey now has broader powers when it comes to searching vehicles based on probable cause.

Earlier Ruling: A Two-Pronged Standard for Vehicle Searches in New Jersey

The court had previously held in State v. Pena-Flores, a consolidated 2009 case involving two police searches which turned up evidence of handguns and marijuana, that police could conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle only when the vehicle owner consents to a search or when exigent circumstances exist. Absent express consent of the car’s owner, the court ruled, there must be probable cause to believe that the evidence will disappear if police are forced to wait for a court to issue a search warrant or there must be some sort of public safety issue that would be implicated if the search is delayed.

A New Standard: Expanding the Scope of Police Powers to Conduct Warrantless Vehicle Searches

The new ruling was handed down in a case involving a Salem County, NJ man who had been charged with illegal possession of a handgun after police allegedly found him with a firearm during a motor vehicle stop. The suspect was stopped by police on Route 48 in Carneys Point NJ in December 2012. The stop was unrelated to any suspicion about weapons possession; the patrol officer pulled over the suspect because the suspect reportedly “failed to dim” his lights as he passed the officer on the two-lane highway.

The officer initially suspected that the driver was intoxicated, so he performed a field sobriety test. After the suspect allegedly failed the field sobriety test, he was placed under arrest. During a subsequent search of the suspect’s vehicle, the police officer discovered the handgun in the center console. The officer later testified that he conducted the vehicle search because he was looking for evidence that might indicate that the suspect had been drinking alcohol.

As a result of the officer’s discovery of the weapon, the suspect not only faced charges for driving while intoxicated (DWI); he was also charged with a felony-level offense for unlawful possession of a weapon. During trial in Salem County Superior Court, the suspect tried to get the evidence of illegal handgun possession declared inadmissible on the grounds that police had performed an illegal search in violation of his constitutional rights. The evidence should be tossed, argued the suspect, because the police officer failed to obtain a warrant prior to searching the vehicle and exigent circumstances did not exist since there was no reason to believe that preservation of the evidence would be a concern while the officer waited for a court to issue a search warrant. The NJ Supreme Court ultimately rejected the suspect’s arguments and reversed the trial court’s decision to suppress the evidence in the case.

Aftermath of the Decision: Weighing the Privacy Rights of NJ Residents against the Need for Police to Enforce Laws to Protect Public Safety

The highly controversial decision has spurred debate about search and seizure issues in New Jersey, with some strongly supporting the idea that NJ law enforcement should have greater ability to obtain evidence in drug and weapons cases while others question the curbing of NJ residents’ privacy rights. In issuing the decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that police officers already have a difficult enough task of protecting the public without being burdened by limiting standards that prevent them from effectively conducting searches in drug and weapons cases.

The court’s decision means New Jersey law is now more in line with the federal law that already allows for warrantless vehicle searches when probable cause exists.

For more information about the recent court ruling, read the article entitled “N.J. Supreme Court expands police authority for warrantless car searches.”

John W. Tumelty has years of experience representing clients who have been accused of various crimes in New Jersey. Contact his offices in Atlantic City, Somer’s Point or Marmora for a confidential consultation about your charges.

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