Recent NJ Supreme Court Decision Signals Loss of Protection for Motorists Subject to Vehicle Searches

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.

In the Court’s view, Pena-Flores was based upon two expectations that never materialized.  First, the Court anticipated that the decision would lead to the increased use by the police of telephonic warrants.  Additionally, Pena-Flores contained a multi-factor test that the police could use to determine whether any particular situation presented the kind of exigent circumstances necessary to dispense with a warrant.  From the Court’s perspective, neither of these things happened.

As to the issue of telephonic warrants, the Court established a special committee on telephonic and electronic search warrants after Pena-Flores.  This committee issued a report in 2010 that concluded, among other things, that the process of obtaining a telephonic search warrants should be completed in between 30 to 45 minutes.  The Administrative Office of the Courts subsequently conducted a study in Burlington County which found that the time to complete a telephonic search warrant application averaged 59 minutes.  A similar State Police report found that the completion time was between 1 1/2 and 2 hours (Just a bit biased?).  The length of the stop created issues of officer, motorist and vehicle safety that concerned the Court.

Also troubling to the Court was the fact that a significant number of motorists were simply consenting to vehicle searches.  According to the State Police, the annual number of consent searches rose from 300 to over 2,500, with motorists purportedly consenting in over 95% of cases.  The Court viewed this as an indication that police were simply abusing motorists by pressuring them into consenting to a search.

Finally, the exigent circumstances criteria were “too complex and difficult for a reasonable officer to apply to fast-moving and evolving events that require prompt action.”  Against this backdrop, the Court abandoned the six-year-old increased protections for motorists articulated in Pena-Flores and returned to its prior standard.

The two-prong standard of Pena-Flores demonstrated that New Jersey historically provided motorists with safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures exceeding those of other states.  Those days may be over, depending on how Witt plays itself out in future suppression hearings and appellate decisions.

One further interesting note:  As discussed above, the standard set forth in Witt relies on probable cause.  Acting Attorney General John Hoffman observed that unlike Pena-Flores, Witt improves on past practices by providing “a clear and workable rule.”  Mr. Hoffman is apparently unaware of the fact that the number of state and federal court decisions attempting to define the phrase “probable cause” could easily fill a warehouse.

James S Friedman LLC represents defendants in criminal cases in the State and Federal trial courts of New Jersey and New York.  If you have a New Jersey or New York criminal charge, contact the firm immediately to discuss your options.




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