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Warrantless Searches of Vehicles

The New Jersey Supreme Court has now made it easier for police to conduct warrantless searches of vehicles.

In State v. Witt, the court overturned the previous standard for searching vehicles which required the police to get a warrant in most circumstances because they found the was unworkable in practice.

The warrantless search of a vehicle is permitted “when police have probable cause to believe that it contains contraband or evidence of a crime and where circumstances giving rise to probable cause are unforeseeable and spontaneous.”

The previous requirement that police obtain a warrant before searching an automobile was aimed at reducing the length of roadside stops, and creating a multi-factor test for determining if there were exigent (emergency) circumstances to be helpful to police. Local law enforcement reported that the average automobile warrant took approximately 59 minutes to obtain, and state police reported that the process took on average 1.5 to 2 hours.

The court also found the exigency formula was “too complex and difficult for a reasonable officer to apply to fast-moving and evolving events that require prompt action.” The process of securing telephonic warrants has resulted in “unacceptably prolonged highway stops,” increasing the risk of serious injury or even death to vehicle occupants and police officers from passing traffic, the court said. The court found this was a significant burden on law enforcement, without a real benefit to the public.

The court’s decision limits the automobile exception to on-scene warrant less searches, unlike the Federal standard, which allows the Officer to conduct the search at headquarters, because they could have searched on the side of the road.

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