By Andrew Seidman, Inquirer Trenton Bureau
Posted: September 26, 2015TRENTON - The New Jersey Supreme Court on Thursday relaxed the standard by which police may search an automobile without obtaining a warrant, ruling that the current test "does not provide greater liberty or security" to the state's residents "and has placed on law enforcement unrealistic and impracticable burdens."
With the 5-2 decision, the high court reversed precedent, finding that its previous standard had resulted in unintended consequences such as a surge in consent searches and prolonged roadside stops.
"The current approach to roadside searches premised on probable cause - 'get a warrant' - places significant burdens on law enforcement," Justice Barry Albin wrote for the majority.
"On the other side of the ledger, we do not perceive any real benefit to our citizenry by the warrant requirement in such cases - no discernible advancement of their liberty or privacy interests."
Albin added, "When a police officer has probable cause to search a car, is a motorist better off being detained on the side of the road for an hour (with all the accompanying dangers) or having his car towed and impounded at headquarters while the police secure a warrant?"
It's debatable which scenario is more intrusive, Albin wrote, so warrantless searches based on probable cause are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, with a few caveats.
The U.S. and state constitutions prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, authorities can conduct a search of an individual or his property if there is probable cause that a crime has been committed and they obtain a warrant.
There are some exceptions to the warrant requirement, including for searches of automobiles.
Under existing state precedent - which was based on a 2009 case and overturned by the court Thursday - authorities could conduct warrantless searches if the traffic stop is unexpected; if there is probable cause to believe they will find evidence of a crime; and if "exigent circumstances exist under which it is impracticable to obtain a warrant."
The court's decision Thursday nixed this last requirement. The court returned the law to a standard established in a 1981 case, ruling a warrantless search is "constitutionally permissible if the circumstances giving rise to probable cause are unforeseeable and spontaneous."
Acting Attorney General John Hoffman said the court had "achieved an appropriate balance between protection of citizens' constitutional rights and the paramount need for public protection and officer safety."
The American Civil Liberties Union, Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and State Bar Association had opposed the state.
"New Jersey courts have historically required a system for automobile searches that was strongly protective of motorists' rights," ACLU attorney Alexander Shalom said in a statement. "With today's decision, those protections no longer exist, and police will be able to routinely conduct warrantless searches of vehicles."
Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote a dissenting opinion and was joined by Judge Mary Catherine Cuff, who is serving on the court on temporary assignment because of a vacancy. "This is not a proud day in the history of this court," LaVecchia wrote.
"Through perseverance in seeking the reversal of a disliked decision with which the state made desultory, if any, effort to comply, the attorney general has been rewarded on the basis of a wholly inadequate and unpersuasive record."
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justices Anne M. Patterson, Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina, and Lee A. Solomon joined in Albin's majority opinion.
The case stemmed from a 2012 traffic stop in which a Carneys Point police officer pulled over a motorist because he had not dimmed his high beams when necessary.
After the motorist failed a sobriety test, the officer searched the car for "intoxicants" and found a handgun, according to the opinion. The authorities charged the motorist, William L. Witt, with unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of a weapon by a convicted person.
Witt sought to have the gun charges suppressed, arguing that the officer's warrantless search violated his constitutional rights. The trial court found police had probable cause to search the car for alcohol but did not have "sufficient exigent circumstances" to conduct the search without a warrant.
The appellate division affirmed that decision, ruling that because Witt was handcuffed and sitting in the back of the police cruiser, the police didn't have reason to believe possible evidence - open containers of alcohol - would disappear by the time they obtained a warrant.
The Supreme Court affirmed the decision but ruled that the standard established by the 1981 case would be the law going forward.
Witt's attorney couldn't be reached Thursday.
When the court affirmed the "exigent circumstances" standard in 2009, it encouraged law enforcement to pursue electronic and telephonic warrants.
The court also established a task force, which concluded that search-warrant applications should be completed in no more than 45 minutes.
But a pilot program found that search-warrant requests were exceeding that goal. Moreover, according to the court, since the 2009 precedent was set, the State Police reported that statewide consent-to-search requests had surged from 300 per year to 2,500 per year. This finding and others were concerning, Albin wrote, given the State Police's history of racial profiling.
Moreover, he wrote, it was too difficult for law enforcement to discern what constituted an "exigent circumstance," meaning "we cannot expect uniform and consistent decision-making."
The standard now endorsed by the Supreme Court brings New Jersey closer in line with the federal exception to warrantless searches of automobiles, which most states have adopted, Albin wrote.