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When can New Jersey police search your car without a warrant?

On Behalf of | Jan 29, 2024 | Criminal Defense

Most people know that if police show up at their home and want to come in, they typically have a right to say no unless they have a search warrant (with exceptions). When it comes to police officers’ right to search your car and seize items when they pull you over, they’re less clear.

That’s understandable. Motorized vehicles weren’t around when the U.S. Constitution was written, so “searches and seizures” applied only to homes. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on the matter over the years. Justices have determined that police can search a vehicle without a warrant if:

  • They have the right to stop the driver due to “reasonable suspicion” of illegal activity (like driving drunk).
  • They have “probable cause” that there’s evidence of a crime in the vehicle.

That’s because a driver could potentially pull away at any moment, and there’s no expectation of privacy when you’re driving on a public road.

Probable cause must be “unforeseeable and spontaneous”

Last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on a case that adds further clarity for law enforcement and drivers in our state. The case involved a man pulled over by Tom’s River police. The driver, who had been under surveillance for drug crimes, refused to consent to a search of his vehicle, but police called in a drug-sniffing dog. Based on the dog’s response, they searched the vehicle, where they found drugs, weapons, and ammunition.

Police contended that the dog’s reaction was probable cause for the search. However, the man argued that the seized items were inadmissible as evidence because they were found in a warrantless search.

The high court agreed with the trial judge and the appellate court that the items were inadmissible. Specifically, it ruled that the search wasn’t legal because the circumstances used as probable cause for the search (culminating with the dog’s signal) weren’t “unforeseeable and spontaneous.”

Basically, the justices determined that law enforcement had plenty of time to get a search warrant for the vehicle because they knew what kind of criminal activity they suspected him of. That’s different than, for example, pulling over a speeding driver and then finding them soaked with blood that doesn’t seem to be their own.

Knowing the law and being able to assert your rights are key. So is getting experienced legal guidance to help you protect your rights if you’re arrested and charged.

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