A state trooper stopped a vehicle on I-295 in Burlington County. The basis for the stop was a damaged tail light. The vehicle, which also changed lanes without signaling, had three occupants – the driver, a front-seat passenger, and a six-year-old child in the back seat. The trooper smelled burnt marijuana upon approaching the passenger side of the vehicle, and then asked the front passenger, the defendant Hagans, to step out of the vehicle. He arrested, handcuffed, and Mirandized him, and called for backup. He then asked the driver, Shonsheray Chandler, to step out of the vehicle. He Mirandized her and asked her about the presence of Marijuana in the car. She denied both knowing the defendant possessed marijuana, and that she had been smoking it in the car. He handcuffed Chandler and placed her in the back seat of the police car.
The trooper asked Chandler to consent to a vehicle search. Prior to reading her the consent form, he stated “it would be a lot easier if you would just make things easy.” He read her the form, told her that she could refuse to consent, and that she could leave absent some other reason to hold her. He also told her that she could be present during the search if she consented, and could withdraw consent at any time. At first, Chandler refused to consent to the search. The trooper responded by saying that he was going to apply for a search warrant which would just prolong the inevitable, and that he just wanted to make things easier. Chandler then consented to the search. In fact, the record indicated that she repeatedly consented to the search after her initial denial. The trooper then re-read the consent form in its entirety and again asked Chandler if she consented to the search, and she responded in the affirmative. The trooper also repeated for the mobile video recorder (“MVR”) that Chandler initially denied consent, but then changed her mind. The vehicle search yielded a bag of marijuana and a handgun.
The defendant admitted that the marijuana and gun were his, and was charged accordingly. During a suppression hearing, the trial court found that based upon the totality of the circumstances, the consent to search was valid and not coerced. The Appellate division affirmed.
The Supreme Court granted certification to address the issue of whether the consent to search was freely and voluntarily given. The primary evidence supporting the trial court’s finding was the MVR. In this regard, the Court noted that because of advances in technology, MVRs are being mounted in greater numbers of police vehicles, and they have become an important tool in evaluating precisely what transpires during a motor vehicle stop. In the matter at bar, the MVR provided both audio and visual evidence of Chandler’s interaction with the trooper, and therefore gave the trial court a firm basis upon which to conclude that her consent was voluntary. Further, the trooper’s statements concerning the application for, and issuance of, a warrant were not coercive, but were instead seen as a candid assessment of the likelihood that a warrant could be easily obtained.
There are several takeaways from this case. First, and as the Supreme Court strongly suggested, the result could have been different but for the MVR. That is, had the MVR not been available, the application of conventional search and seizure principles – formulated prior to the development of MVRs – may have voided the search. The search was deemed valid because of the trooper’s use of new and expanding technology in this case. Additionally, since increasing numbers of police cars are equipped with this technology, defense counsel must always ask for copies of MVRs as part of a discovery request in every case involving a vehicle stop.
James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal defense attorney centrally located in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Mr. Friedman represents clients with criminal charges in all State and Federal courts in New Jersey and New York City.