Police Can Search Your Vehicle in NJ: Here’s Why
Every person in New Jersey should be able to be secure in their vehicle, meaning that your car is protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. This is not a blanket protection, however. Instead, it is limited so that police officers can search your car ONLY IF they have a warrant, if they have a reasonable suspicion that your vehicle contains evidence of a crime, or if they suspect there is a threat to the officer’s safety in the vehicle. Protections are actually even more expansive in New Jersey than the federal constitution, which is often very beneficial for New Jersey citizens and visitors. Nevertheless, like all rights, they are qualified if safety or illegal activity are concerns. For example, if an officer suspects that your car contains drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or prescription medications, they may use the sheer smell of weed or other probable cause to justify searching it. Similarly, if it appears that a firearm or another weapon is inside, this would be considered valid reason for conducting a search. Here are the rules on vehicle searches in New Jersey. If you have been arrested following a search of your car, contact us today to discuss your defense.
Can Police Search my Car in New Jersey?
Yes, police can search your vehicle, even without a warrant, under certain circumstances. In general, the 4th Amendment requires a warrant for searches and seizures. However, the “automobile exception,” is an exception to this requirement. Also referred to as the “motor vehicle exception,” an officer can search your vehicle if he or she has reason to believe that the car contains some evidence of illegal activity. It is important to note that this suspicion must reasonable and based on real circumstances—it cannot be based on just a feeling or preexisting belief held by the officer.
Another exception that comes up often is the ability to search a car after a person has been arrested. Generally speaking, an officer can search a vehicle after arresting someone. This search is called a “search incident to arrest.” It encompasses all containers found within the car, including, for example, jacket pockets. Usually, the same facts that give rise to the arrest will also provide the officer with a reason to search the vehicle. However, being arrested does not mean that officers have unlimited power to search anything they wish.
What if I’m being Arrested, Is Searching a Vehicle Allowed in NJ?
In State v. Pierce, two individuals were in the vehicle. They were pulled over for routine traffic stop. The officer realized that the person driving was driving with a suspended license. He arrested her immediately and placed her in his squad car. He then proceeded to search the vehicle. The officer’s search revealed a large hunting knife, a loaded gun, and a trace amount of cocaine. They were both charged with weapons and drug offenses.
New Jersey is one of many states that permits officers to arrest individuals who violate traffic laws. As a result, the Court found that the officer had committed no error in making the arrest and detaining the individuals. The focus of their analysis was on the search of the car after the arrest was made.
The automobile exception allows officers to search vehicles when they have probable cause. Because an officer also has to have probable cause to make an arrest, the same reasons that the arrest occurred often allow the officer to search a vehicle as well. That means that an officer cannot automatically conduct a search after any arrest—but the officer must expect to find some type of illegal contraband in the car. They can also search the vehicle (or portions of the car) when there is a potential threat to their safety.
In Pierce’s case, the individual was arrested for operating a vehicle without a license. There really would not be any evidence of this crime that could be found in the car because the only action associated with this illegal activity is actually driving the car. The same could be said for any other type of traffic violation. Based on that analysis, the Court found that the police cannot search a vehicle unless they have probable cause to find contraband, or there is a threat to the officer’s safety. However, the officer can search the individual who was arrested (clothing, shoes, etc.).
Arrested after a Car Search in Morris County, What Should I do?
If you suspect you or a loved one has been through an unlawful search, you should consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer to discuss the issue further. Searches must meet strict requirements to be valid in New Jersey. Learn more about your rights by contacting our experienced Morristown criminal defense attorneys today.