The answer to the above question, which is often asked by my clients is “probably not” in light of cases recently decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court and Appellate Division. However, the factual setting for a law enforcement official’s investigative stop and/or warrantless search of a motor vehicle will undoubtedly vary in each case.
To overcome the presumption that a warrantless search is invalid, the State must show by a preponderance of evidence that the search falls within one of the well-recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement. One such exception is the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. In State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211, 233 (1981), the New Jersey Supreme Court applied federal constitutional law and concluded 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.”
Thereafter, in State v. Witt, 233 N.J. 409, 447 (2015), the New Jersey Supreme Court explained that Alston’s “unforseeability and spontaneity” requirement regarding probable cause did not place an undue burden on law enforcement.
Then, in State v. Smart, 253 N.J. 156, 172-173 (2023), the New Jersey Supreme Court considered the Alston/Witt test. The Court clarified the automobile exception to permit warrantless searches of readily movable cars occurs when police officers have probable cause to believe that said vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime AND circumstances giving rise to probable cause were unforeseeable and spontaneous.
The circumstances, in Smart, included the investigation of prior information from the CI and concerned citizen about defendant, the vehicle, and narcotics trafficking in the area; lengthy surveillance of defendant and the vehicle; reasonable and articulable suspicion that defendant had engaged in a drug deal; and a “positive” canine sniff of the vehicle. The Court affirmed the order suppressing the physical evidence seized from the vehicle as the investigative stop was deliberate, orchestrated, and wholly connected with the reason for the subsequent seizure of the evidence, e.g., drugs, drug paraphernalia, weapons and ammunition, from Smart’s SUV. Hence, the state could not justify the search under the automobile exception and a search warrant was required before searching the SUV.
I do believe it is important to note that the defendant, in Smart, was asked to exit his SUV and when patted down, no incriminating evidence was found. In addition, consent to search the SUV was declined, and the vehicle could have easily been impounded as police headquarters was just minutes away from where the vehicle was stopped. The Smart Court further noted that considering the facts of the case, a search warrant could have been issued after a review of the application for the same. I cordially invite any and all prospective clients to contact me concerning a case in which their motor vehicle was stopped and searched by police officials. It is very important to address the so called proofs, which satisfy the Alston/Witt/Smart requirement that the circumstances given rise to probable cause were unforeseeable AND spontaneous. Steven F. Wukovits is a certified criminal trial attorney and NJ Super Lawyer at Triarsi, Betancourt, Wukovits & Dugan, LLC. If you or a loved one were arrested and/or charged with a crime and have questions regarding your rights, please immediately contact Steven F. Wukovits at (908) 709-1700, on his cellular phone at (973) 722-7348, or by email email@example.com.