This week, the Supreme Court of New Jersey overturned its own 2009 decision related to the issue of police authority in warrantless vehicle searches. The old 2009 holding – State v. Pena-Flores – reaffirmed the New Jersey rule that police are required to obtain a warrant before searching a motor vehicle unless they (1) have probable cause and (2) can demonstrate that “exigent circumstances” necessitate the search. This two-pronged approach has acted as protection for New Jersey citizens when compared against the harsher federal standard for vehicle searches, which does not require “exigent circumstances.”
The new case – State v. Witt – resulted in a 5-2 decision, overturning the previous standard. The holding expands police authority to conduct a search of a motor vehicle, and brings New Jersey in conformity with the federal standard. Justice Albin delivered the opinion, and criticized the old 2009 rule for the following reasons:
Experience and common sense persuade us that the exigent-circumstances test in Pena-Flores does not provide greater liberty or security to New Jersey’s citizens and has placed on law enforcement unrealistic and impracticable burdens. First, the multi-factor exigency formula is too complex and difficult for a reasonable police officer to apply to fast-moving and evolving events that require prompt action…. Second, the securing of telephonic warrants results in unacceptably prolonged roadway stops. During the warrantapplication process, the occupants of a vehicle and police officers are stranded on the side of busy highways for an extended period, increasing the risk of serious injury and even death by passing traffic…. Third, one of the unintended consequences of Pena-Flores is the exponential increase in police-induced consent automobile searches. The resort to consent searches suggests that law enforcement does not consider time-consuming telephonic warrants or the amorphous exigent-circumstances standard to be a feasible answer to roadway automobile searches. The heavy reliance on consent searches is of great concern given the historical abuses associated with such searches and the potential for future abuses.
The new standard lessens the burden on officers and will apply prospectively to all police motor vehicle searches.
Although the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General has praised the decision, not all commentators have jumped on board. Two justices on the Court were not pleased with the majority opinion. In dissent, Justice LaVecchia criticized the decision of the court, and its departure from three decades of precedent guaranteeing greater protections for New Jersey citizens. Justice LaVecchia noted the erosion of rights to the federal baseline: “[b]y eliminating the exigency requirement, the majority mimics the federal standard — a question we were forced to confront in [our previous decisions] and which we as a Court rejected as constitutionally insufficient in this State.”
Given this newly expanded police authority to conduct warrantless searches, a good defense attorney is all the more important. If you or a loved one are in need of legal assistance, it is recommended that you seek the advice of competent counsel.