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NJ Supreme Court Decision Makes It Easier For Police to Justify Warrantless Vehicle Searches

5-2 Decision Overturns Court's Precedent, Restoring Standards That Were in Place From 1981-2009
Charlie Kratovil

TRENTON, NJ—The New Jersey Supreme Court handed down a ruling on September 24 that will make it easier for police to search cars without having to first obtain a warrant.

As a result of the 5-2 decision in the case, State v. Witt, New Jersey will revert to standards set in 1981, which would allow the warrantless search of a vehicle if the police had probable cause to believed it contained contraband or evidence of a crime.

The court's ruling found that the State v. Pena-Flores ruling, handed down in 2009, was "unworkable," and that it was resulting in too many stopped motorists being asked to sign warrants on the spot.

With that decision reversed, New Jersey will now operate under the standards set in the State v. Alston ruling, which maintained that a police officer would only need to have probable cause to search a car, instead of a warrant.

"Under federal law, probable cause alone satisfies the automobile exception to the warrant requirement," reads the decision, "The federal automobile exception does not require a separate finding of exigency in addition to a finding of probable cause, as is the case in New Jersey."

"The overwhelming majority of states have adopted the federal approach to the automobile exception and do not require exigency beyond the inherent mobility of the vehicle."

New Jersey defines exigent circumstances as ones where evidence of a crime is at risk of being lost or destroyed, and where there is an imminent threat to the safety of law enforcement or members of the public. An officer would have needed to demonstrate that:

  1. An emergency was at hand which required the officer's immediate assistance
  2. The search would not be conducted with the intent to arrest an individual or seize evidence
  3. A connection could be shown between the immediate emergency and the need to conduct a search

Probable cause is defined by the state as meaning that the officer holds a well-grounded suspicion that a crime is being committed or has recently been committed. The standard for probable cause is that any person, given the facts available to the officer at the time, would believe that a crime was or has been committed.

Advocates of the move argued that the 2009 decision created a set of "multi-level" standards which were difficult for officers to navigate, leading to prolonged traffic stops.

In 2009, courts urged officers to transition towards obtaining warrants via telephone, a move that was believed would speed up the search process and shorten the duration of traffic stops.

But the members of the panel showed skepticism that such a change would ever happened, saying the expectations "haven't come to pass."

"Prolonged encounters on the shoulder of a crowded highway may pose an unacceptable risk of serious bodily injury and death to both police officers and citizens," the ruling reads.

Opponents of the move remained skeptical of the court's reasoning, with civil liberties advocates saying the ruling "set back protection New Jerseyans have been provided for decades."

“The state completely failed to show the ‘special justification’ that is usually required to overturn prior cases, and instead relied on self-fulfilling speculation of doom by arguing that it would be too difficult for officers to know when they needed to request a warrant," said Alexander Shalom, a Senior Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.