Can the Police Just Search My Car?

Do the Police Need a Warrant to Search a Motor Vehicle?

A substantial amount of the weapon and drug offenses that we see at Keith Oliver Criminal Law stem from a search conducted after a routine traffic stop. So the question becomes, does a police officer have the authority to search an individual’s motor vehicle following an otherwise routine traffic stop or must they first obtain a search warrant? This is a hot button issue that New Jersey tends to keep flip flopping on. As of 2015, the New Jersey State Supreme Court in State v. Witt, concluded that warrantless searches of  automobiles, on the roadway, is permissible, provided it was “based on probable cause arising from unforeseeable and spontaneous circumstances”. So, in essence, the police are allowed to conduct a search of a Defendant’s motor vehicle provided they have probable cause to do so. However, this theory is limited to roadside searches. If the vehicle was to be impounded, absent an exigency, the police must obtain a warrant prior to searching the vehicle. This case has changed the landscape of warrantless searches of automobiles in New Jersey. Prior to the courts ruling in State v. Witt, if the police could establish what is known as exigent circumstances, they could lawfully search a motor vehicle. This ruling has made it easier for the police to justify a warrantless search of a motor vehicle. So, the next question becomes, what is probable cause?

What is Probable Cause?

To establish probable cause, the arresting officer must be able to point to reliable and sufficient facts to believe that a crime has been committed and that the search or seizure will yield evidence of that crime. When challenging a officer’s determination that probable cause exists, the courts will conduct a totality of the circumstances analysis. So, whether the officer had probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of the Defendant’s motor vehicle will be based on a totality of the circumstances surrounding the officer’s determination and not just one isolated factor. The court in State v. Moore, stated that probable cause merely requires “a practical, common sense determination whether, given all of the circumstances, ‘there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found.

Is the Smell of Marijuana Enough Probable Cause for a Warrantless Search of a Car?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. The court in State v. Meyers, stated that the New Jersey courts have [long] recognized that the smell of marijuana itself constitutes probable cause “that a criminal offense ha[s] been committed and that additional contraband might be present.” See State v. Walker So in other words, if the officer(s) assert that they smelled marijuana emanating from inside the vehicle, it will most likely give them the probable cause that they need to justify a warrantless search of the vehicle. However, this is not as cut and dry as it may seem at first glance, their are crafty argument that can be made in order to challenge the officer(s) observations.

Is the Smell of Marijuana Enough Probable Cause to Make an Arrest in NJ?

In State v. Myers, the Court was tasked with deciding whether the “plain smell” of burnt marijuana emanating from a vehicle was still sufficient by itself to constitute probable cause for an arrest. The argument was premised on the theory that smoking marijuana was no longer entirely illegal for all persons in New Jersey. In Myers, police approached a vehicle with three individuals inside in the context of making inquiries about gunshots that had been heard in the vicinity of a party after 1:00 a.m.  An officer smelled burnt marijuana coming from the interior of the vehicle when he approached the driver’s side window and arrested the three men.  The driver, Myers, was found to have both a baggie of raw marijuana and a handgun in his pocket. So in Myers, the court is saying that even the smell of marijuana alone could give the officer probable cause to place the individual under arrest. Which begs the question, what if no marijuana was ever found? If that is the case, the analysis would turn to the credibility of the officer and whether or not they actually had “probable cause” to make the underlying arrest that ultimately lead to the contraband in question, in this case the handgun. Call our Middletown office at 732.858.6959 and speak to one of our criminal lawyers today about your options.

Monmouth County NJ Criminal Lawyer

If you have been arrested and charged with a criminal offense like the possession of marijuana, the possession of heroin, the unlawful possession of a weaponpossession of marijuana with the intent to distribute, the possession of CDS in a motor vehicle or any other criminal offense for that matter in Monmouth County, we can help. Our office aggressively challenges the evidence presented against our clients in order to achieve a favorable outcome. We fully understand what a criminal conviction, let alone a lengthy jail sentence can do to someone’s life. If you would like to discuss your options with Mr. Oliver or one of the other members of our firm, then please contact us at 732.858.6959 or leave us an email. For more information on Miranda Warnings and what happens when the CDS is not found on the Defendant, please click the link. Our Monmouth County criminal attorneys are available around the clock to help assist in anyway that we can, so if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask.

Author: Keith G. Oliver

Founding partner Keith G. Oliver has a passion for helping people who are caught up in the criminal justice system. He believes that everyone has a right to be presumed innocent, and that one mistake shouldn’t define a person forever. This passion drives Mr. Oliver to tirelessly fight for his clients and pursue the best possible outcome in every case.