NJ Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Warrantless Vehicle Searches
The New Jersey Supreme Court recently listened to arguments from a state prosecutor requesting a reversal in the 2009 State vs. Pena-Flores case that requires police officers obtain a warrant before searching a vehicle pulled over for a traffic violation. The prosecutor asked that the court reinstate its decision handed down in 1981 in the State vs. Alston case in which the police officers were permitted to search a vehicle without a warrant when probable cause was found.
During the two-and-a-half-hour hearing, New Jersey Assistant Attorney General Ronald Susswein argued that the current system requiring a police officer to obtain a warrant before searching a vehicle leads many officers to request consent from the driver instead of calling in for a telephonic warrant. Susswein stated that he was concerned about the “coercive” factor involved in getting the driver to sign a consent to search.
Probable Cause Debate
In the 2009 Pena-Flores decision, the Court ruled that police officers must have probable cause and exigent circumstances to search a vehicle without a warrant. In the 1981 State vs. Alston case, the Court decided that the circumstances surrounding a vehicle stop could provide both probable cause and exigent circumstances because of the spontaneous and uncertain nature of the situation, giving the police officer the right to use their own discretion in searching the vehicle.
Susswein also argued that the supposed ease of obtaining a telephonic warrant via cell phone has not been effective. In a prior study conducted in Burlington County, the average response time for obtaining a telephonic warrant was 59 minutes, which is too long to safely secure a vehicle and its occupants on a roadway. Assistant Deputy Public Defender, Stephen Kirsch, is opposed to reversing the 2009 standard because it protects a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights to privacy, putting the burden of proof on the prosecution to provide evidence that there were exigent circumstances justifying the right to search a vehicle without a warrant.
Members from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Bar Association, and the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey attended the hearing to support keeping the 2009 Pena-Flores decision as the state standard. Both sides of the argument focused on the legality of evidence found during a warrantless search. In two recent cases in New Jersey, police found firearms in a vehicle that they searched, but because they had not obtained a warrant before the firearms were found, the evidence was suppressed.
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