Hundreds of criminal arrests in New Jersey and around the country are a result of unrelated searches or questioning that reveals suspicious or criminal activity and/or paraphernalia. A driver may be pulled over for a broken taillight, but the traffic stop could also reveal that the driver was on his way home from the bar after one too many drinks.
A police visit after a report of loud noises or a disturbance in someone’s home could reveal a party in which underage kids were drinking alcohol. There are even more circumstances in which a simple inquiry can result in an extended criminal sentence; so it’s important that people in New Jersey know their rights when it comes to police searches.
In a recent decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed a six-year-old ruling that held police to certain standards when conducting roadside vehicle searches. The original ruling was issued in 2009, in State v. Pena-Flores, where the court determined that officers could be excused from obtaining a warrant before searching a suspect’s vehicle, provided they had evidence of exigent circumstances.
These circumstances can include any of the following: the time of day or night the stop was initiated, the number of passengers in the vehicle compared to the number of officers present, what led to the probable cause for initiating the stop and a variety of other factors.
The court ruled that officers should attempt to obtain a telephonic warrant, which is treated the same as an in-person warrant. Absent this warrant, exigent circumstances can lead to a warrantless search. In such cases, officers were instructed to ask motorists to sign consent forms, acknowledging that they were allowing police to search their vehicles.
However, in the court’s most recent decision in State v. Witt, the judges ruled that the standards previously set are too cumbersome and too many motorists are being stopped to sign the forms that consent to a search. In Witt, the judges reversed the Pena-Flores ruling and returned to the standards set in 1981.
These standards allow police to search a vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity or illegal contraband, and if the circumstances that led to probable cause are “unforeseeable and spontaneous.”
According to the judges on the state Supreme Court, the exigency requirement is “too complex and difficult for a reasonable officer to apply to fast-moving and evolving events that require prompt action.”
Feedback from the Witt Decision
The Witt ruling from the state Supreme Court has raised questions about the need for vehicle searches. Critics of the Supreme Court decision say that they fear Pena-Flores didn’t work because officers didn’t give their full efforts to obtaining warrants and working within the requirements for initiating a search.
At Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our New Jersey criminal defense lawyers represent drivers who have been charged with criminal activity after a search of their vehicles. Contact our firm for information regarding your rights and changing requirements for warrantless searches.