Police Do Need Warrant to Search a Car in Many Circumstances

Automobile Exception to the Warrant Requirement: Pena Flores and Witt


Under Federal law, probable cause alone satisfies the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The Federal automobile exception does not require a separate finding of exigency in addition to a finding of probable cause. In order to adhere to Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey State Constitution, however, the State the state of New Jersey established additional automobile exception requirements for warrantless searches of vehicles.

Exigent circumstances are exceptions to the general requirement for a search warrant under the Fourth Amendment.  Exigent circumstances are present when officers do not have sufficient time to obtain any form of warrant.

In 2009, in the case of State v. Pena Flores, 198 N.J. 6 (2009) the New Jersey Supreme Court set an additional requirement standard that the exigency must be assessed based on the particular facts and circumstances of the case and does not automatically depend upon the mobility of the vehicle. The ruling in Pena Flores declared that the warrantless search of an automobile in New Jersey is only permissible when (1) the stop is unexpected (2) the police have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime; and (3) exigent circumstances exist under which it is impracticable to obtain a warrant (198 N.J. at 28). Legitimate considerations for exigent circumstances included for example, time of day, location of the stop, nature of the neighborhood, ratio of officers to suspects, existence of confederates who know the car’s location and could remove its contents, whether passersby could tamper with the car or evidence, whether it’s safe to leave the car unguarded, or whether the delay caused by obtaining a warrant would place the officers or evidence at risk. The court established factors to determine whether exigent circumstances excused the seeking of a warrant, and encouraged the use of telephonic or electronic warrants as a method to address the constitutional challenges of roadside stops.

In 2015, however, in the case of State v. Witt, N.J. (A-9-14) (074468) the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the constitutional standard governing an automobile search and ruled to return to the standard set forth in the earlier case of State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211 (1981), citing that the exigent circumstances standard of Pena Flores is unsound in principle and unworkable in practice. It was reasoned that since the advent of Pena Flores in 2009, it took roughly an hour to complete a telephonic automobile search warrant request. This was seen as leading to prolonged vehicle stops on the highways and was deemed to pose an unacceptable risk of serious bodily injury or death to police officers and citizens. Furthermore, since the advent of the Pena Flores decision, it was reported that statewide consent search requests rose from approximately 300 per year to over 2,500 per year. This was due to police department policy to promote the consent search option in order to circumvent the requirement to seek a telephonic search warrant. The Supreme Court Special Committee on Telephonic and Electronic Search Warrants January 2010 report concluded that this consent search policy was conducive to abuse and the coercive effect of roadside consent search requests.

The unintended effects of the exigent circumstances standard of Pena Flores encouraged the court to return to the earlier standard of State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211 (1981).  In Alston, the court stated that the exigent circumstances that justify the invocation of the automobile exception are “the unforeseeability and spontaneity of the circumstances giving rise to probable cause, and the inherent mobility of the automobile stopped on the highway”. ID at 233. This ruling essentially added a requirement that is not part of the federal automobile exception standard: that the stop and search of a vehicle cannot be pre-planned – it must be unforeseen and spontaneous.

Therefore, the New Jersey Supreme Court decision in State v. Witt N.J. (A-9-14) (074468) decided September 24, 2015 limits the automobile exception to on-scene warrantless searches, unlike federal law, which allows a police officer to conduct a warrantless search at police headquarters. Exigent circumstances are no longer required to justify a warrantless search of an automobile in New Jersey. The determination rests on probable cause and the mobility of the vehicle. The reasoning is that the unforeseen nature of a highway traffic stop and the mobility of the vehicle make it unlikely that a warrant could be obtained before the vehicle could drive away. And given the undesirable effects of procuring a telephonic warrant on the roadside, it was deemed not feasible to do so any longer, under the Pena Flores standard.

So, since the New Jersey Supreme Court decision in State v. Witt N.J. (A-9-14) (074468) decided September 24, 2015 going forward, the exigent circumstances test in Pena Flores 198 N.J. 6 (2009) and State v. Cooke, 163 N.J.  657 (2000) no longer apply to the rules governing warrantless automobile searches. The prior standard for warrantless searches of automobiles based on probable cause set forth in State v. Alston prevails. A warrantless search of a vehicle on the highway in New Jersey only requires probable cause and that the stop be unforeseen and spontaneous and not pre-planned. It also depends on the mobility of the vehicle and whether the vehicle is operable and the vehicle and evidence can be removed without time to secure a warrant.