Articles Posted in Traffic Stops

In order for a traffic stop to be valid in New Jersey, there must be reasonable suspicion that a motor vehicle violation has been committed. There is significant case law in New Jersey concerning proper traffic stops leading to drinking and driving charges. First, under State v. Carpentieri, 82 N.J. 546 (1980), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the police must have an articulable and reasonable suspicion that a violation of the traffic laws has occurred in order to effectuate a stop for DWI. Next, in State v. Pegeese 351 N.J. Super 25 (2002), the court held that the police may not detain occupant for consent search absence violation or criminal conduct once evidence of proper licensing, registration and the like is supplied. Finally, in State v. Pitcher 379 N.J. Super 308 (2005), the court decided that a stop based on an officer’s mistaken understanding of a fact, e.g., that the driver had a suspended license, will not be invalidated provided the officer’s actions were supported by a “reasonable” belief that the related facts were accurate. The court held that officer’s traffic stop, conducted in reliance on erroneous information in the DMV database that showed that the defendant had a suspended license, was reasonable.

Therefore, for a DWI charge to hold up, there must be a proper traffic stop supported by reasonable suspicion.

A leaving the scene of an accident charge in New Jersey is a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-129. The charge can involve fines, license suspension, and even jail, depending on whether or not there was an injury involved and/or the extent of any property damage involved in the accident. If you are convicted of leaving the scene of an accident it involves mandatory license suspension (ranging from six months to a year) for the first offense. In order for the State to prove a leaving the scene of an accident charge, they must show that the driver was knowingly involved in an accident.  What this presumes is that the State can also prove operation, which is usually established by witness testimony or admissions made by the accused. “Knowingly” involved in an accident means that the driver was actually aware that he was involved in an accident or, that given the circumstances, he reasonably should have been aware that an accident had occurred. A person acts knowingly with respect to the result of his conduct if he is aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause such a result.  It should also be kept in mind that in those instances where the prosecutor is seeking to impose penalties based on personal injury or significant property damage, those elements must also be established in order to convict. The law and standard for proving a charge of leaving the scene of an accident charge is illustrated in the New Jersey case of State v. Kay 151 N.J. Super 255 (1977). In that case, the court held that evidence that defendant’s automobile was involved in a hit-and-run accident at 2:00 a. m. and that the victim identified defendant as the driver, although not “without a doubt,” was sufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant was driving his automobile at the time of the accident and was guilty of leaving the scene of an accident.

It is well settled that the stopping of a motor vehicle and the detention of its occupants constitutes a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the detention is brief. The United States Supreme Court in Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979), held that the police must have at least an articulable and reasonable suspicion that a violation of the traffic laws has occurred. This may include a reasonable suspicion that the driver is unlicensed, the vehicle is not properly registered, or that an occupant in the vehicle is subject to seizure for a violation of the law. Absent a reasonable and articulable suspicion, individual police officers may not use their unbridled discretion to effect motor vehicle stops. The Prouse case involved a random stop by a police officer to check on a driver’s credentials. There was no justification for the stop other than a desire to perform a random check. Although the Supreme Court ruled that the random aspect of the stop was unreasonable, it did not rule out other types of spot checks by the police. One such suggested stop would be a supervised road block where all vehicles would be stopped and questioned about driving credentials. However, the court was clear that individual officers could not effect motor vehicle stops in the absence of a reasonable and articulable suspicion.

There are several exceptions to the requirement that the police obtain a warrant to search an area such as a house or a vehicle. One of these exceptions that I have previously discussed is the plain view doctrine. Another exception to the requirement that the police obtain a warrant is the automobile exception. Article 1, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution has often been interpreted by the New Jersey Supreme Court to provide more protection in various aspects of arrest, search, and seizure law than does the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution. This is the case with regard to the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. Under federal law, the Court requires merely that probable cause exists to believe that a vehicle contains evidence of a crime. Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938. If this is the case, there is sufficient justification to conduct a search without a warrant.

This view is not shared by the New Jersey Supreme Court. In State v. Cooke, the court ruled that Article I, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution requires a finding of both probable cause and exigent circumstances in order to support a warrantless search under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The exigent circumstances must make it impractical that the police obtain a valid search warrant.

The discovery of evidence during a lawfully executed traffic stop or warrantless search under the plain view exception to the warrant requirement is not necessarily limited to what the police officer sees. New Jersey has also adopted the “plain smell” doctrine. In the typical plain smell case, the officer will effect a motor vehicle stop and detect some odor that will provide him or her with probable cause to believe that an offense has been or is being committed. Common examples are the smell of marijuana (burning or otherwise) coming from inside the vehicle or the odor of alcohol on the breath of the operator or passengers within the vehicle. If the officer’s conduct in performing the search meets the three requirements under the plain view exception (as discussed in a previous article), a suspicious odor may provide sufficient probable cause to invoke a more thorough search under the automobile exception. Briefly, the three requirements under the plain view exception in New Jersey are

1) at the time of the viewing of the evidence, the officer was in a location where he or she had a legal right to be;

2) the officer discovered the evidence inadvertently, meaning that he or she did not know in advance where the evidence was located and did not intend to beforehand seize it; and

Search incident to a lawful arrest is another exception to the requirement that police obtain a warrant before executing a search. New Jersey law on this exception has been interpreted to provide New Jersey drivers with more protection under the state constitution than they would receive under the US Constitution.

In Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969), the US Supreme Court ruled that when police effect an arrest, they are entitled to conduct an immediate search of the person so arrested in order to remove any evidence that could be used to resist arrest, effect an escape, or cause injury to the arresting officers or others. The court also held that the object of the search incident to an arrest could include evidence: fruits and instrumentalities of crime that may be secreted on the arrestee’s person. The scope of the search was not limited by the Court to the person of the individual being arrested, but included the area within the immediate control of the person (“within the person’s wingspan”).

Twenty years after the Chimel decision, the Court created a bright line rule for searches incident to arrest in the context of a motor vehicle stop. In New York v. Belton, the US Supreme Court held that when a police officer effects a lawful arrest of the occupant of a motor vehicle, the officer may, incident to that arrest, search the passenger compartment of the vehicle. New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981). A motor vehicle may contain weapons which the arrestee may use to resist arrest or to injure police. The vehicle may also contain evidence that the arrestee may attempt to destroy or conceal. The police are permitted to search any closed containers within the passenger compartment to which the arrestee may have access. However, the Court was careful to exclude the trunk of the vehicle which may not be searched incident to arrest. Boxes, luggage, bags, and clothing are subject to search if they are within the passenger compartment.

The search of the interior of the vehicle under the “Terry” stop and frisk exception to the warrant requirement is limited. The object of the search is weapons or other objects that could harm the police officer or others. Accordingly, when searching the interior passenger compartment of the vehicle, the police may only search those areas where a weapon may be placed or hidden. A limited protective search for hidden weapons under the seats, within seat cushions, in the glove compartment, under car mats, and other readily accessbile areas in the vehicle are justified. On the other hand, searches of the trunk or locked containers within the vehicle are not justified under this exception to the warrant requirement because these hidden weapons are not readily accessible to suspects.

The New Jersey Supreme Court adopted the Michigan v. Long analysis in State v. Lund, 119 N.J. 35 (1990). The protective search is judged by whether a reasonably prudent person would be warranted in the belief that his or her safety or that of others was in danger. The measure of reasonabless is held to an objective standard.

There are dangers police officers face when executing routine traffic stops. In Pennsylvania v. Mimms, the United States Supreme Court held that police may order persons out of a motor vehicle during a traffic stop and may frisk those persons for weapons if there is a reasonable belief that they are armed and dangerous. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977). The Court decided the grounds upon which the police could conduct a protective search of the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle in the landmark decision of Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983). The Court held that a police officer may conduct a limited search of the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle provided that he or she possesses a reasonable belief based on specific and articulable facts which reasonably warrant the officer believing that the suspect is dangerous and may gain access to weapons. Essentially, this is a Terry stop and frisk of a motor vehicle. The officers, under the Long decision, can conduct a frisk of a motor vehicle for weapons during a routine traffic stop if they have a reasonable suspicion based on specific articulable facts that the individuals in the automobile are dangerous.

In the New Jersey Supreme Court case of State v. Pierce, the Court limited the application of the Belton rule. State v. Pierce, 136 N.J. 184 (1994). The Court held that the Belton rule of permitting searches incident to a lawful arrest during a motor vehicle stop would not apply in New Jersey in those situations where the underlying reason for the arrest was a violation of the motor vehicle laws. Fearing that the statute could be used by police to effect arrests on the slightest pretext and use the opportunity to search vehicles under the Belton rule, the justices declared that searches under Belton shall not apply to warrantless arrests for motor vehicle offenses. Finally, in State v. Eckel, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that, under the New Jersey Constitution, Belton would no longer apply. State v. Eckel, 185 N.J. 523 (2006). With this decision, New Jersey police officers lost the option of searching a motor vehicle incident to the arrest of one of the vehicle’s occupants.

There is a distinction in New Jersey between orders by a law enforcement officer for operators and passengers of a vehicle to exit the vehicle during a motor vehicle stop. With respect to operators of a motor vehicle, New Jersey follows the federal position that police are free to use their discretion to order a driver from the vehicle during the course of a motor vehicle stop. This comes from the federal case of Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977). Critical to this United States Supreme Court decision is the concerns for issues of officer safety during traffic stops. Weighing the potential for death or bodily injury to police during traffic stops against the inconvenience to motorists, the court found that the intrusion can only be described as de minimis (minimal). Essentially, this decision creates a bright line rule that police may require drivers to exit their vehicles during a motor vehicle stop without any justification.

With respect to drivers, the New Jersey Supreme Court has found this decision to be consistent with the New Jersey Constitution. In State v. Smith, the court that that the Mimms test is constitutional under the New Jersey Constitution. State v. Smith, 134 N.J. 599 (1994). The Court adopted the reasoning of the USSC and found that, in contrast to the minimal intrustion on a person’s privacy, a police officer’s safety is greatly enhanced when an officer can order a driver out of the car.

Contact Information