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Warrantless Search Requirements for Vehicles

May 20, 2015 | Posted In Drunk Driving - DUI/DWI |

When a police officer initiates a DUI traffic stop, suspicious behavior and erratic driving are usually tip-offs that the driver may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Once the car has been stopped, the officer will typically perform a series of sobriety tests to confirm their suspicions.

But if there are seriously unsafe conditions or further indications of drunk driving, such as a visible, open bottle of alcohol or the strong smell of liquor, the officer may determine that there is enough evidence to search the vehicle.

In order to perform a vehicle search without first obtaining a warrant — a process that could take much more time than a DUI traffic stop allows — a New Jersey officer must have the driver sign a consent form, authorizing a search of the vehicle at the time of the stop. This practice stems from a six-year-old state Supreme Court ruling, and now, judges are deliberating whether this ruling should be overturned to allow for a less cumbersome standard.

2009 – State v. Pena-Flores vs. 1981 – State v. Alston

In 2009, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that both probable cause and exigent circumstances were required for police to search a person’s car without first obtaining a warrant. This decision updated the previous standard established in the 1981 state Supreme Court case of State v. Alston. That ruling held that, given the inherent mobility of a vehicle in question and the spontaneous circumstances that lead to probable cause, exigent circumstances are pretty much assumed and a warrant is not necessarily required.

Although technological advances make it easier to get in touch with people on the go, law enforcement offices in New Jersey report that it has not been significantly faster to request warrants over the phone, with average wait times of over an hour. Because judges are typically in the courtroom all day, they do not have easy access to these phone requests and can’t guarantee an immediate reply.

Without a warrant, the consent forms can be utilized but the police officer on the scene has to have probable cause to initiate the search. One problem with the search of a vehicle is the restricted options for the driver — when the police show up at someone’s house and ask to search the property, the homeowner can shut the door and refuse entry. But in a vehicle, the driver does not have that option and may be impeded further with sobriety tests, charges or even arrest.

Right to Privacy

The right to privacy in your home and vehicle is fundamental, no matter what you are under investigation for, and at Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our attorneys work to protect your rights by keeping up to date on changes in state policies and statutes. If you feel that your car has been searched without a warrant or in violation of your rights, contact a New Jersey DUI/DWI lawyer at HCK today for a consultation.

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