In State v. Robinson, decided on May 1, 2017, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered the extent to which the “protective sweep” doctrine, which is an exception to the warrant requirement, applies to a police search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle during a traffic stop. In Robinson, an officer observed a vehicle driving in a manner he considered unsafe in an area known for drug activity. He stopped the vehicle, which contained four occupants, and asked the driver for his license and registration. The driver, Robinson, misidentified himself, told the officer that his license was suspended, but provided proof of insurance and a registration. One of the other occupants, Henderson, misidentified himself as the Robinson. The remaining occupants correctly identified themselves and produced ID cards. The driver stated his friend owned the vehicle, but did not know his name. The officer learned from his dispatcher that the driver had an outstanding warrant and was known to carry weapons, and that Henderson had a “caution for weapons”. The officer called for backup, and other officers arrived. Defendant and Henderson were removed from the vehicle, arrested, and handcuffed. Both were searched, but neither had weapons. Some of the officers now present watched the defendant and Henderson , both of whom stood on the roadside and could not return to the car. The other two occupants were detained, but not arrested. One of them left her purse on the front passenger seat. An officer then conducted a sweep of the car’s interior to check for weapons, at which time he touched the bottom of the purse and detected the outline of a gun. He retrieved the gun, brought it to his vehicle, and told the other officers to arrest the remaining two occupants. Defendant pleaded guilty, but later moved to suppress the gun. The trial court denied his motion, but a majority of the Appellate Division panel found that the officer’s search of the car was not a lawful protective sweep. One judge dissented.
The Supreme Court found that the surrounding circumstances created a reasonable suspicion that the vehicle contained a weapon, but the five officers present at the scene acted in a manner that eliminated the risk that any of the four occupants could immediately access a weapon. Thus the protective sweep exception to the warrant requirement could not be used to salvage the search.
In discussing this conclusion in depth, the Court observed that warrantless searches are permissible only if they fall within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement. The protective sweep exception, which derives from Terry v. Ohio, held that police may conduct an investigatory stop if there are “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inference from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.” The Court also noted that Terry stops are narrowly tailored to allow a reasonable search for weapons. Further, the United States Supreme Court applied the protective sweep exception to a vehicle in Michigan v. Long, and New Jersey adopted that standard in State v. Lund. The standard was discussed further in State v. Gamble. Taken together, Long, Lund and Gamble therefore set the standard for a valid protective sweep of a vehicle that has been stopped. To justify such a search, the State must present specific and articulable facts that, when taken with the rational inferences from those facts, justify a belief that someone in the car is dangerous and may have immediate access to a weapon. Protective sweeps of vehicles cannot be justified by the potential presence of a weapon; rather, the doctrine turns on imminent danger to the police when someone has access to a vehicle that may hold a weapon, or may be able to overpower or evade officers at the scene. Continue reading