“Protective Sweep” Exception Allowed Police to Search New Jersey DWI Suspect’s Car, According to Court

treesThe Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits most warrantless searches by police, requiring them first to obtain a warrant from a judge or magistrate. Various exceptions to this rule apply during traffic stops, when police can act on anything they see, hear, or smell that gives them a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. This could result in a traffic stop for suspected driving while intoxicated (DWI) leading to more serious charges, or a stop for a lesser traffic violation leading to a suspicion of DWI. A defendant in a New Jersey DWI case, State v. Mercado, challenged the search of his vehicle, which police claimed was justified under the “protective sweep” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

The protective sweep exception is largely based on another Fourth Amendment exception known as the plain-view doctrine, which holds that police do not violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights if they investigate something that they can easily see from a reasonable vantage point. If an officer stops a car because of something other than DWI, for example, the officer may be able to investigate possible DWI if an open alcohol container is visible inside the car. This also applies to something an officer can smell, such as the odor of alcohol or marijuana.

A 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Michigan v. Long, addressed the plain-view doctrine in a traffic stop for suspected DWI. The officers searched the defendant’s vehicle because they “had reason to believe that the vehicle contained weapons potentially dangerous to the officers.” Instead, they found marijuana. The Supreme Court identified the protective sweep exception more specifically in 1990 in Maryland v. Buie. It held that an officer may search the immediate area when they have a specific reason to believe that another person is present who could pose a threat to themselves or others.

According to the Appellate Division’s opinion in Mercado, the arresting officer initiated a traffic stop after observing the defendant’s van driving erratically. The officer claimed that, once he had approached the vehicle, the defendant kept reaching both of his hands between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat, where the officer could not see them. He also claimed that the defendant was “profusely sweating,” had bloodshot eyes, and failed to produce identification. The officer removed the defendant from the vehicle and searched between the seats, looking for a weapon. He saw several small packages on the floor, which he believed contained narcotics.

The defendant was charged with multiple offenses, including DWI. He moved to suppress all of the evidence obtained from the vehicle, arguing that the officer should have obtained a warrant. The trial court denied the motion under the protective sweep exception.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s ruling, even though it acknowledged that no one else was in the van, meaning that no one could have posed a threat once the defendant was outside. The court mentioned a New Jersey Supreme Court case, State v. Lund, in which a similar search was ruled unconstitutional. The court distinguished that case, however, simply by stating that the situation presented by the defendant’s behavior during the stop in Mercado “was more worrisome.”

A DWI charge or conviction in New Jersey can significantly affect your life. An effective defense for your case requires careful planning and preparation. The experienced and knowledgeable DWI attorneys at Levow DWI Law have dedicated 100% of their law practice to the defense of people in this situation. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717. We are available to help you 24/7.

More Blog Posts:

New Jersey DWI Defendant Challenges Officer’s Justification for Traffic Stop, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 24, 2016

Driver’s Admission to Drinking Was Enough Probable Cause for Police to Order Breath Testing, According to New Jersey Court, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 8, 2016

New Jersey Supreme Court Reverses Its Own Rule on Warrantless Car Searches, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, October 31, 2015

Photo credit: Famartin at English Wikipedia [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.