New Jersey Law Now Permits Car Search If Police Have Probable Cause to Believe That The Vehicle Contains Contraband or Evidence of Crime
State v. Witt __ NJ __ (2015) Warrantless Auto Search Permitted on Probable Cause
The New Jersey Supreme Court Held: exigent-circumstances standard set forth in Pena-Flores is unsound in principle and unworkable in practice. Citing Article I, Paragraph 7 of New Jersey’s State Constitution, the court returns to the standard articulated in State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211 (1981), for warrantless searches of automobiles based on probable cause. The automobile exception authorizes the warrantless search of an automobile only when the police have now probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of an offense and the circumstances giving rise to probable cause are unforeseeable and spontaneous.
In this appeal, the court addresses the constitutional standard governing an automobile search and considers whether to continue to follow the standard set forth in State v. Pena-Flores, 198 N.J. 6 (2009).
The Appellate Division granted the State’s motion for leave to appeal and affirmed the suppression of the gun “because of the utter absence of any “exigency” to support the warrantless search that occurred,” and “because there was no justification for this motor vehicle stop.” State v. Witt, 435 N.J. Super. 608, 610-11 (App. Div. 2014). The panel declined to address the State’s argument that it has proved to be unworkable and has led to unintended negative consequences,” explaining that, as an intermediate appellate court, “it had no authority to replace Pena-Flores with some other legal principles.”
Although the court determines the exigent-circumstances standard set forth in State v. Cooke, 163 N.J. 657 (App. Div. 2000) and Pena-Flores is unsound in principle and unworkable in practice, it does not adopt the federal standard for automobile searches because it is not fully consonant with the interests embodied in Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey State Constitution.
The court returns to the Alston standard, which states that the automobile exception authorizes the warrantless search of an automobile only when the police have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of an offense and circumstances giving rise to probable cause are unforeseeable and spontaneous. The court’s decision limits the automobile exception to on-scene warrantless searches, unlike federal jurisprudence, which allows a police officer to conduct a warrantless search at headquarters merely because the officer could have done so on the side of the road.
The court’s decision is a new rule of law to be applied prospectively. Therefore, for purposes of this appeal, Pena-Flores is the governing law. However, going forward, the exigent-circumstances test in Cooke and Pena-Flores no longer applies and the standard set forth in Alston for warrantless searches of automobiles based on probable cause governs.
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