New Jersey Supreme Court Reverses Its Own Rule on Warrantless Car Searches

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a controversial ruling in late September 2015, State v. Witt, regarding the circumstances in which police can search a vehicle without a warrant during a traffic stop. After arresting the defendant on suspicion of driving while intoxicated (DWI), the arresting officer searched the vehicle and found a handgun. This resulted in a charge of unlawful possession of a firearm. The court found that the search was lawful, despite the lack of a warrant. This overturns the rule established by the court in 2009 in State v. Pena-Flores, sometimes also cited as State v. Fuller, which required “exigent circumstances” for warrantless vehicle searches. Federal case law allows warrantless vehicle searches, often merely with a showing of probable cause. This is commonly known as the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s search warrant requirement. The court stated that its ruling in Witt is bringing New Jersey in line with the federal standard.

The U.S. Supreme Court first identified an “automobile exception” in 1925 in Carroll v. United States, finding that the inherent mobility of a vehicle makes it impractical to require an officer to obtain a warrant before a search—by the time they got the warrant, the vehicle might be halfway to the state line. Courts have expanded the automobile exception in the 90 years since Carroll was decided. Prior to 2009, the general rule in New Jersey was established by the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 1981 decision in State v. Alston. That case held that the automobile exception allowed police to search a vehicle without a warrant both during a lawful traffic stop and after the arrest of the vehicle’s occupants, when there was no longer any risk of the vehicle being moved.

In Pena-Flores, the court noted that it has “never subscribed fully to the federal version of the automobile exception,” and it noted that many of the cases in which it applied the automobile exception actually involved exigent circumstances. A case decided on the same day as Alston, State v. Martin, involved a vehicle whose occupants, suspects in a bank robbery, had fled the scene but could “have returned at any moment to move the car or remove the car’s contents.” Waiting to obtain a warrant before searching the vehicle would have been impractical. The court crafted a three-part rule in Pena-Flores for warrantless vehicle searches:  (1) an unexpected traffic stop, (2) probable cause to suspect that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime or contraband, and (3) exigent circumstances rendering it impractical to wait for a warrant.

One issue with the exigent circumstances standard, which the court acknowledged in Pena-Flores, is the difficulty an officer may face in assessing whether a situation meets this standard during a traffic stop. The court recommended that law enforcement and courts work on facilitating telephone and electronic communication in order to streamline the processing of requesting and obtaining a warrant. Now that six years have passed since that ruling, the court took another look at the exigent circumstances requirement in Witt and found it to be “unsound in principle and unworkable in practice.” Witt explicitly overturns Pena-Flores and returns the state to the Alston standard.

If you have been charged with an alleged DWI in New Jersey, an experienced and knowledgeable DWI lawyer can help you prepare your case and present the best possible defense of your rights. At Levow & Associates, we have dedicated 100% of our practice to representing DWI defendants. We are available to help you 24/7. Contact us online or at (877) 975-3399 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Defendant Argues “Mistake of Law” in New Jersey DWI Appeal, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 25, 2015

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Limits Police Authority During Traffic Stops, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 9, 2015

Motorist Settles Lawsuit Against City Involving Arrest for Alleged DWI, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, March 6, 2015

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