Car Search Permitted So Long As Exigent Circumstances Exist

The NJ Supreme Court decided the case of State v. Fuller last week.  The case further clarified the law concerning warrantless searches of motor vehicles.

Mr. Fuller was stopped for a valid motor vehicle violation.  There was conflicting documentation concerning the ownership of the car and the driver’s information.  The question was whether this conflict provided probable cause for the arresting officer to search the compartment of the vehicle for additional information.  The officer went ahead with a search and discovered a gun and xanax pills in the console, and a additional drugs elsewhere in the car.  The Supreme Court concluded that the search of the console was warranted based on the inconsistencies with the credentials but that any additional search was invalid as Mr. Fuller was already under arrest by virtue of the items in the console and there was therefore no reason that the police could not obtain a warrant to further search the vehicle.  Once the exigency to search has been eliminated (e.g. Fuller placed under arrest), so too does the basis for a warrantless search of the car.

In my judgment the decision does little to establish anything new under the law other than to reiterate that this determination is very fact sensitive.  Every case like Fuller comes down to just how far the arresting officer(s) have gone to establish probable cause or basis for believing that the car contains contraband.  Not surprising, invalidating car searches boils down to officers either making mistakes in their reports or good cross-examination. 

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