Can the Police Search my Car Without a Warrant?

The answer in New Jersey is…it depends. There is a federal constitutional  law automobile exception to the warrant requirement which New Jersey subscribes to. But believe it or not, New Jersey goes a step further and gives the individual more protections than the federal law requires. Under federal law, the police can search your car so long as it is readily mobile and there is probable cause to believe it contains evidence of criminality. It it is the mobility of the vehicle that creates what are called exigent circumstances, and jeopardize the preservation of evidence. Under the federal standard, as long as there is probable cause and  any showing of ready mobility, the exigency requirement will be satisfied.

New Jersey law differs and requires that there must be something more to the exigency than ready mobility to obviate the need for a search warrant. For one, the stop of a motor vehicle can not be pre-planned. It must be unforeseen and spontaneous. In addition to probable cause, the state, if challenged, must prove that the exigent circumstances were such that it was impracticable to obtain a warrant.

The concept of exigency is just that, a concept that is only defined on a case by case basis given the totality of the particular set of circumstance that law enforcement was presented with on that occasion. Some of the things the court has considered include:

  • the location of the stop
  • the time of day
  • the ratio of suspects to officers
  • the existence of a threat that others may remove the evidence
  • safe to leave the car unguarded
  • the unfolding of events leading to probable cause.

These are just a few factor. Yet, it is important to remember that because New Jersey search and seizure laws are a bit more defendant friendly, there are more opportunities for NJ criminal defense lawyers to file motions to suppress evidence. Typically speaking, if a defendant is victorious making his motion, the State will not be able to prove the case and the charges may be dismissed.

In addition, the New Jersey Supreme Court has granted individuals further protection against illegal search and seizures by requiring a warrant once the suspect(s) are arrested. This means that if that police have secured the defendant, typically prior to any searches, they may not be allowed to rely on the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The term arrest is not black and white. Simply being in handcuffs does not necessarily mean under arrest. In most cases the defendant will need to be more thoroughly secured for there to be an arrest for our purposes. Nonetheless, a motion to suppress may succeed if it can be shown that the police searched the vehicle after they had already “arrested” the defendant. This is because New Jersey laws are more stringent as applied to the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement.

Depending on the facts of your case, it may be possible to make a motion to suppress based upon the foregoing. If you feel that your vehicle was searched illegally, you should contact a New Jersey search and seizure lawyer to discuss your case.


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