When Can Police Search Your Car in New Jersey?

December 5, 2020

The following paragraphs contain a case law that explains the issues surrounding searches, seizures, and arrests in a motor vehicle context and demonstrates the potential complexity involved in protecting your rights.

When Can Police Search Your Car in New Jersey?The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.” A person cannot be arrested without a warrant unless probable cause and a select few exigent circumstances exist. Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573 (1980). One such warrant exception is a search incident to a lawful arrest. Police officers have a duty to investigate criminal behavior, which they are aware of: Terry v. Ohio, 393 U.S.1 (1968). However, the duty does not extend to situations where the possibility of criminal activity is immediately found not to exist. A police officer does not have the right to continue interrogating a person in a fishing expedition for criminal activity where the person is not engaging in potentially unlawful behavior.

Police Stop Must be Reasonable or Conduct may be Regarded as “Fruti of the Poisenous Tree”

Concerning motor vehicle contexts, first and foremost, the vehicle’s initial stop must be reasonable, or all police conduct thereafter will be regarded as the “fruit of the poisonous tree” and must be suppressed—Wong Sun v. the United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963). Police officers may conduct an inventory search of a vehicle in a situation where the protection of the owner’s property is somehow in jeopardy. State v. McDaniel, 156 N.J.Super. 347 (App. Div. 1978). Another reason that police departments have regulations requiring that an inventory be made of the contents of an impounded vehicle is to protect the police against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property. South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 369 (1976). However, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in State v. Ercolano, 79 N.J. 25, 52 (1959), there must be a substantial need to conduct the inventory search, and if the owner of the vehicle is present, then there is no need for such a search. The Court continued, holding that consent from the owner must be sought when the owner is present before a search can be conducted. Furthermore, the Court stated, “Mere legal custody of an automobile by law enforcement officials does not automatically create a right to search its interior.” Id. In the McDaniel case, supra, the Court held that the inventory search was invalid. The motivation was the officer’s desire to explore the car’s interior and not to protect the owner’s property. The McDaniel Court further held that the officer’s true intent for searching was manifested by the fact that he halted the search immediately after the contraband was discovered. Id. at 360.

Inadmisable Evidence in Criminal Prosecution

The New Jersey Supreme Court addressed these issues again in State v. Mangold, 82 N.J. 575, 577 (1980), stating, “Contraband discovered in the course of an inventory conducted without first permitting vehicle occupants to utilize available alternative means of safeguarding their property is inadmissible as evidence in a criminal prosecution.” The Court further held that the owner of the vehicle, or its occupants, “must be given the option of either consenting to the inventory or making his own arrangements for the safekeeping of the property contained in the vehicle.” Id. at 587. Finally, for there to be a lawful inventory of the contents of a motor vehicle, there must be “standardized criteria” which limit police discretion in two ways.

What are the Criteria to limit Police Discretion?

  1. First, limiting an officer’s discretion whether to inventory a vehicle and, second, by limiting an officer’s discretion regarding the inventory’s scope, particularly concerning closed containers. The United States v. Salmon, 944 F.2d 1106, 1120 (3rd Cir. 1991). Assuming that the officer follows “standardized criteria” for conducting the inventory search, three additional conditions must be met. First, the vehicle must have been lawfully impounded. State v. Hill, 115 N.J. 169, 176 (1989). The vehicle may not be impounded unless the vehicle constitutes a danger to other persons or property or public safety. The driver cannot arrange for someone else to remove the vehicle. State v. Ercolano, supra, 79 N.J. 25 (1979); State v. Slockbower, 79 N.J. 1 (1979).
  2. Second, the police may not use an inventory search as a subterfuge to conduct an exploratory search. Slockbower, supra, 79 N.J. at 12-13. “Mere lawful custody of an impounded vehicle does not ipso facto dispense with the constitutional requirement of reasonableness mandated in all warrantless search and seizure cases.” State v. Mangold, 82 N.J. 575, 584 (1980). The motor vehicle exception eliminates the requirement of a warrant yet still rigorously upholds probable cause. State v. Martin, 87 N.J. 561, 567 (1981). The reasonableness of an inventory search is evaluated against the “scope of the search, the procedure used, and the availability of less intrusive alternatives.” Mangold, supra, 82 N.J. at 584. Such considerations weigh heavily in striking a balance between the governmental interest advanced to justify the intrusion and the individual citizen’s constitutionally protected privacy interest. Id.; see Opperman, supra, 428 U.S. at 378.
  3. Third, even when a vehicle is lawfully impounded, if the owner is present, that person “must be given the option of either consenting to the inventory or making his own arrangements for the safekeeping of the property contained in the vehicle. Absent consent or alternative security provisions, an inventory may not be undertaken.” Id. at 587. An attempt must be made to allow the owner to first remove his own belongings as the entire purpose of the inventory search exception is based on the need to safeguard the owner’s property while in police custody. State v. One 1994 Ford Thunderbird, 349 N.J.Super. 352, 368 (App. Div. 2002). If the owner is not allowed to remove his possessions from the vehicle before the police begin an inventory search, any evidence discovered during the inventory search must be suppressed—Mangold, supra, 82 N.J. at 577.

Contact a Skilled Member of our Monmouth TeamProbable cause to search areas other than the passenger compartment of a vehicle is only established when there is a discovery of suspicious items in the passenger compartment that would reasonably lead an officer to believe that there is contraband in, for example, the trunk. State v. Cross, 134 N.J. Super. 368, 373 (App. Div. 1978). See State v. Letman, 235 N.J.Super. 337 (App. Div. 1989). The New Jersey Supreme Court has held that such a vehicle search can only be broadened when the circumstances of the arrest and the search incident to the arrest justify searching areas other than the passenger compartment. State v. Patino, 83 N.J. 1 (1980). In the Patino case, the officer found marijuana in the vehicle’s interior and then searched the trunk. The Court stated, “A small amount of marijuana does not mean alone without other circumstances that suggest participation in drug traffic or possession of more contraband justify to extend the zone of the exigent search further than the person of the occupants of the interior of the car. Id. at 14-15.

Contact a Skilled Member of our Monmouth County Criminal Law Team

You must call an attorney immediately upon any questioning or search or seizure while in your vehicle. Many of these issues are relevant for home searches as well. If you have been subject to any similar experience with the police and face charges, get help from an attorney who can evaluate the facts surrounding your case and determine the most effective way to defend against any resulting charges.

At Chamlin, Uliano & Walsh, we serve clients across West Long Branch, Red Bank, Colts Neck, Asbury Park, and across Monmouth County, ensuring that their rights are protected.

To meet with an experienced member of our firm today regarding your case, please contact us online or by phone at 732-440-3950.