Generally speaking, a motor vehicle is not protected from unreasonable searches and seizures to the same extent as a home. Our State’s Supreme Court has further reduced that level of protection.
William Witt was pulled over on Route 48 in Carneys Point in Salem County in December 2012. Witt’s high beams were activated, and he failed to dim them as he passed a nearby police officer. The officer spoke with Witt, determined that he was intoxicated, performed field sobriety tests, and arrested him. The officer searched the car for an open alcohol container and located a handgun in the center console. Witt moved to suppress the gun, arguing that the search and seizure were unreasonable. This argument was based on the 2009 Supreme Court decision, State v. Pena-Flores, which required the police to have both probable cause and exigent circumstances before conducting a warrantless search of an automobile. The search of Witt’s vehicle was unconstitutional because there were no exigent circumstances preventing the police from first obtaining a warrant.
In the September 2015 decision of State v. Witt, the NJ Supreme Court overturned Pena-Flores and retreated to the standard set in the 1981 decision of State v. Alston. The earlier standard allowed police to search a vehicle without a warrant when they had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained evidence of a crime, and where the probable cause stemmed from circumstances that were unforeseeable and spontaneous. Continue reading ›