This past week the New Jersey Supreme Court has reversed itself from its prior ruling imposing greater restrictions on law enforcement conducting searches of automobiles. In its 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court relaxed this prior precedent. Under the prior decision, authorities could conduct warrantless searches if “exigent circumstances” existed. An exigent circumstance is, in lawyer legalese, is an emergency or the need to act fast in order to preserve evidence. For example, if a police officer hears screaming like someone is in distress in home, the police officer on the street does not need to obtain a search warrant from a judge to enter the home; rather, the law provides that he can enter the home without the warrant due to the emergency, i.e. the woman screaming.
The same logic has been applied to car searches up until last Thursday. A police officer could not search a vehicle, he pulled over or walked past unless the officer had the owner’s consent or an emergency existed. Now, the New Jersey Supreme Court deemed that ruling to be impractical and handed law enforcement greater discretion to search New Jersey citizens’ cars. Specifically, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a police officer now only has to show that the search is “constitutionally permissible if the circumstances giving rise to the probable cause are unforeseeable and spontaneous.”
The matter giving rise to this decision involved a car stop whereby the driver was pulled over and given a sobriety test. Once the driver failed the sobriety test, he was handcuffed and the officer searched the car without the driver’s consent. The officer then found a handgun in the car. The driver challenged the search as unconstitutional due to the fact that there was no emergency or exigent circumstances that allowed the officer to search the vehicle since the driver was handcuffed. The New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed holding now that the officer only show that “the circumstances giving rise to the probable cause are unforeseeable and spontaneous.”
The end result of this means that police officers will be able to use greater discretion to search vehicles. That means when you get pulled over, you must realize that the police will likely be able to search your car. The exact law on this area takes up a greater deal of time and even whole seminars. Nonetheless, next time that you should be aware that although you do have rights to refuse a search of your car in New Jersey, that window has closed substantially over the last week.