In State v. Lewis, the NJ Appellate Division was presented with its first opportunity to interpret the expanded automobile search/exigent circumstances requirements set forth in State v. Pena Flores. The State, in this case, appealed the trial court’s holding which invalidated the search, and suppressed evidence. The trial court, applying the test set forth in Pena-Flores, found that there were not sufficient exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless search of the automobile.
The Appellate Division, examining the same set of facts and testimony that was presented to the trial court, concluded otherwise, holding that the totality of the circumstances not only amounted to probable cause, but also provided the police with the necessary exigent to search the vehicle and its occupants without a warrant.
In my opinion, the court in Lewis engaged in a little game of “what could have been” and “what was.” The trial court based the decision to suppress on the facts as they were. Many of the exigencies the State relied upon occurred after the search had taken place. The Appellate division may have boot strapped themselves into a remand by giving the late developing exigent circumstances more weight than they deserved. Nonetheless, had some of the late developing exigent circumstances been present during the thick of things, the case would have been a much easier decision (good search).
The bottom line is that every one of these cases is a fact sensitive, open to interpretation scenario. One Judge may interpret the facts differently than another (as scene in State v Lewis). Are there ever arrest and searches that are clear violations of a defendant’s constitutional rights? Of course. However, the overwhelming majority of warrantless searches are subject to some sort of interpretation based upon the totality of the circumstances. This is where a good criminal defense lawyer can make all the difference, having the ability to take those 50/50 cases and turn the odds in favor of his/her client.