For years now the New Jersey Supreme Court has gone back and forth on the issue of whether a police officer is permitted to conduct a warrantless search of a motor vehicle based on probable cause alone. For the better part of the last two decades, New Jersey has provided its citizens with greater protection than that of the Federal system. Pursuant to State v. Cooke and State v. Pena-Flores, a police officer must have both probable cause and exigent circumstances before they can justify a warrantless search of a motor vehicle. However, that all changed in 2015, when the New Jersey Supreme Court decided State v. Witt.
Do the Police Need a Warrant to Search a Car?
In State v. Witt, the Defendant was pulled over for having his high beam on. A further inquire revealed that the Defendant was actually intoxicated. As a result, he was placed under arrest and the Defendant’s vehicle was later searched for “intoxicants”. During that search, the a handgun was uncovered. Since the exigency requirement was still required, the court upheld the suppression of the evidence but at the same time changed the standard moving forward. By removing the exigency prong, the court was in essence reverting back to the standard that was addressed in State v. Alston. Now based on Witt, it will be permissible for an officer to conduct warrantless searches on the roadway, provided they can establish probable cause, which arises from unforeseeable and spontaneous circumstances. By reverting back to the old standard, the courts reasoned that they were trying to simplify an overly complicated situation, meaning what is considered an exigency and what is not. The court did not want the officer(s) making a difficult decision on whether an exigent circumstances existed, while on scene. The court actually felt by forcing the officer(s) into this difficult, limbo situation, it was leading to more “consent searches”, as opposed to telephonic warrants, which was the original goal. In other words, they felt that the standard did not lesson the State’s intrusion but actually created more of an infringement. Individuals were now forced to wait on the side of a road while a warrant was obtained or forced to watch their vehicle be impound so that a warrant could be obtained. So the standard going forward is that provided the officer has probable cause and the stop was unforeseeable, the officer may conduct a search of the motor vehicle.
Hamilton NJ Criminal Attorneys
The vast majority of our drugs and weapons cases that we handle in Mercer County tend to stem from a motor vehicle search. If you have been placed under arrest and charged with a criminal offense like the possession of marijuana, the possession of heroin, the unlawful possession of a weapon, the distribution of cocaine, the possession of a weapon for unlawful purpose in Mercer County, the Keith Oliver Criminal Law can help. Our office appears in courts throughout Mercer County, including courts in towns like Lawrence, Hamilton, Robbinsville, Hightstown, Ewing, Trenton and West Windsor. If you would like to speak to one of our attorneys today about your options, then please contact our Hamilton office at 609.789.0779.