Nobody likes to see flashing police lights in the rear-view mirror. Whether you have possibly committed a traffic offense, or there is some other reason for the police pulling you over, it can be a harrowing experience. What you don’t want to do if you are pulled over by a police officer on a New Jersey roadway is panic. You should comply with the officer’s requests, but you should also never forget that you have certain legal rights.
Warrantless Searches: The “Consent” Requirement for NJ Police to Search a Car
Not every motorist who gets pulled over in New Jersey realizes that they can potentially say “no” when a police officer asks about searching their car. You do not have to consent to a search of your vehicle. Unfortunately, a lot of NJ police officers don’t always phrase their request as a question, so the driver mistakenly thinks that they have no choice but to agree to the search of their motor vehicle. Know your rights.
Warrantless Searches: Probable Cause for Searching a Motor Vehicle
One way that NJ police officers can get around the “consent” requirement for searching a motor vehicle is to find probable cause for the search. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects you against unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally speaking, this means that law enforcement must first obtain a warrant, or have probable cause, to search you, your premises, or your property.
Until 2015, NJ police officers were held to a high standard when it came to finding probable cause for searching a car. A law enforcement officer looking to conduct a search of a motor vehicle needed to either obtain consent from the driver or rely on something known as “exigent circumstances.” Exigent circumstances exist when the police officer believes that there is no time to secure a warrant and that the search needs to be conducted immediately before either the evidence disappears or a person’s health is put at risk. In other words: an emergency justifies the immediate search of the vehicle or premises. For instance, if the police officer believes that a kidnapping victim is in the trunk of the car, they may decide to search the vehicle without first getting a warrant. In other cases, such as a case involving a possible drug crime, a police officer may believe that evidence of a crime will be destroyed while they wait for a search warrant.
In September 2015, the NJ Supreme Court issued a ruling that significantly changed the circumstances under which police officers can conduct warrantless searches of motor vehicles. The court noted that the exigent circumstances exception was “impractically strict” and was prone to abuse by police officers who pressure drivers to consent to searches of their vehicles. So the New Jersey Supreme Court did not trust NJ law enforcement to abide by the law and respect the constitutional rights of motorists. And yet, remarkably, the court responded to this abuse of authority by granting NJ police officers even more authority to conduct searches of automobiles without a warrant. The court even cited inconvenience for police as a reason for allowing warrantless searches, noting that the requirement to get a warrant “places significant burdens on law enforcement.”
Regardless of how the current law is interpreted by judges in New Jersey, or at the federal level, it is important to keep in mind that you have certain constitutionally protected rights. If you have been arrested for a crime in New Jersey, you need to speak with a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney who can help protect your legal rights.
Anyone who has been charged with a criminal offense in New Jersey or Pennsylvania needs an experienced criminal defense attorney on their side. The experienced, aggressive criminal defense lawyers at Garber Law can help you fight your criminal charges and avoid the most severe penalties. Contact us now to schedule a free initial consultation about your case.