Articles Posted in Traffic Stops

N.J.S.A. 39:3-74 provides that New Jersey registered motor vehicles may not be driven with non-transparent materials affixed to the windows or lights. This concerns all the vehicles with tinted windows on the front driver’s side or passenger’s side. Based on this statute, New Jersey police conducted motor vehicle stops based on the presence of tinted windows on the vehicles. In State v. Cohen, 347 N.J. Super 375 (App. Div. 2002), the Appellate Division held that the statute in question does prohibit the use of tinted windows that fail to meet certain standards set forth in the New Jersey Administrative Code. The Appellate Division also concluded that the motor vehicle stop in Cohen could be justified under the community caretaking exception. The darkened windows of the vehicle were subject to inspection by the officer in order to determine if the equipment constituted a hazardous condition. Also, the traffic stop in Cohen was also justified under the common law right of inquiry, in that the officer had a reasonably-founded suspicion that the vehicle’s equipment constituted a violation of the motor vehicle statute.

If a vehicle is to be impounded in New Jersey, does a driver or passenger have the right to remove personal possessions from the vehicle before the impoundment or inventory search? According to the New Jersey Supreme Court, occupants of an impounded motor vehicle maintain the right to make suitable arrangements for their personal possessions prior to an inventory search of an impounded motor vehicle. In State v. Mangold, the Court held that police have an affirmative duty to provide the vehicle’s occupants a reasonable opportunity to remove personal effects from an impounded motor vehicle prior to an inventory search. This assumes that the owner or other responsible individual is present at the time of the lawful impoundment. If this is the case, absent consent by the owner or other responsible party, the impounded vehicle may not be subject to an inventory search. In such cases, the owner or other responsible person will be presumed to have assumed the risk for any claims of loss or theft arising from the impoundment.

The rights afforded to the owners and operators of motor vehicles that are subject to an inventory search following an impoundment are based on Article 1, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution and are intended to afford people in New Jersey enhanced protection. Both the initial impoundment and the subsequent inventory search must be lawful. Also, the enhanced protections under the New Jersey Constitution apply even when the vehicle is impounded for the purpose of civil forfeiture.

In general, a police initiated stop of a motor vehicle may be legally justified by three principles of law under both the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution and Article I, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. First, a New Jersey police officer is entitled to conduct a traffic stop when the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a violation of the motor vehicle laws. Such suspicion may be based upon objectively reasonable evidence that the driver has committed a moving violation or that the vehicle is being operated in violation of the licensing, equipment, or registration laws of the State. The evidence supporting the traffic stop need not be sufficient to support a conviction and does not need to be based upon probable cause. All that is required is reasonable suspicion.

A second justification for a motor vehicle stop in New Jersey is the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. This exception, which I have previously discussed in various articles, essentially allows the police to stop a motor vehicle when there is objectively reasonable evidence for the police officer to conclude that something may be wrong with the vehicle or the driver.

A third justification for a traffic stop is based on New Jersey common law: Police have the right and obligation to effect a motor vehicle stop and inquire of a vehicle’s occupants when the police have objectively reasonable evidence to suggest that criminal activity is being planned or conducted.

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. 

During a routine traffic stop, an officer needs a certain amount of time to perform his duties. He must first be satisfied that the driver and occupants do not constitute a threat to themselves or others. Then the officer must obtain information and driving credentials from the driver, verify that neither the vehicle nor its occupants is wanted by other police agencies and complete any tickets and any other documents associated with the stop. Obviously, all of this takes time.

Time is a critical factor during a traffic stop. Although the driver is not under arrest, he or she has been seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and is not free to leave. The defendant is being detained for investigation purposes. Accordingly, the officer does not need probable cause to believe that the operator has committed an offense, nor must the officer inform the driver of his or her constitutional rights prior to questioning. However, the longer the detention period continues, the more the motor vehicle stop will take on the characteristics of an arrest as opposed to a detention. As a result, a court may consider a prolonged detention to have developed into a de facto arrest that must be supported by probable cause. Evidence seized from the operator or statements made during the course of a de facto arrest that is unsupported by probable cause are subject to suppression.

In general, a traffic stop will be considered reasonable if it lasts no longer than is necessary to effectuate its purpose.

I am going to continue to discuss traffic stops and the associated length of detention allowed under New Jersey law. As I stated earlier, a traffic stop is considered reasonable if it lasts no longer than is necessary to effectuate its purpose. In fact, if the motor vehicle has been subject to a valid stop, the police may question the occupants even on a subject unrelated to the purpose of the stop as long as the questioning does not extend the stop’s duration. However, in the absence of any evidence of criminal conduct, once a police officer is satisfied that the operator is validly licensed and that the vehicle is properly insured and registered in the State of New Jersey, the officer may not detain the occupants for further questioning in anticipation of requesting a consent search.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has spoken on this issue and has adopted a test similar to the test in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). The famous Terry decision created the “Terry stop” which allows officers to stop and frisk individuals if they have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. The Terry decision created a two-part test designed to measure the reasonableness of an investigative stop against the detainee’s right to be free from unreasonable seizures. Under the test, a reviewing court must consider:

1. Whether the police officer’s actions were justified from their inception; and

It is now established that a detention which occurs during a motor vehicle stop by the police constitutes a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The question remains whether there is a requirement for the police to inform motorists of their Miranda right to remain silent during a motor vehicle detention. This question was answered in the US Supreme Court decision of Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984). The court held that the requirements of Miranda v. Arizona apply even in those situations where the defendant is arrested for a minor motor vehicle violation. If the police wish to conduct a custodial interrogation of the defendant, they must first inform him of his constitutional rights.

What about a motor vehicle detention that does not result in an arrest? Although there are many similarities between a motor vehicle detention and an arrest, the Court found two significant differences between a formal arrest and a roadside motor vehicle detention. First, the Court found that most traffic stops are usually temporary and brief. Driver’s have an expectation that this short stop may result in a summons being issued and then they will be free to go on their way. The court found this strikingly different from a stationhouse interrogation where the questioning is usually prolonged and the defendant is often aware that the questioning will continue until the police obtain a confession. The second key difference the court emphasized is that during a typical traffic stop a motorist may not feel as though they are completely at the mercy of the police officer. The public nature of the stop reduces the ability of a police officer to use illegitimate means to elicit self-incriminating statements and also diminishes the driver’s fear that if he does not cooperate, the police officer may become abusive.

As a result, the court ruled that individuals who are temporarily detained during an ordinary traffic stop are not in custody for purposes of Miranda. There is no requirement that police inform detained motorists of their Miranda rights unless or until the police place a given motorist or vehicle occupant under arrest and wish to conduct a custodial interrogation.

Although a police officer is under no obligation to inform a detained motorist of the right to remain silent (one of the famous Miranda rights), does a driver have the right to remain silent during a traffic stop in New Jersey? In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court held that a person being detained for criminal investigation is not obligated to respond to the questions of the police. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). This same right applies in New Jersey. The rules of evidence provide that every natural person has a right to refuse to disclose to a law enforcement officer any matter that will incriminate him or expose him to a penalty.

There are some limited exceptions to this rule in the motor vehicle context. Motorists who are involved in motor vehicle accidents are affirmatively required to provide the police, witnesses and other parties involved in the accident certain information. This includes the driver’s name and address as well as his or her license and registration. Furthermore, the driver has a duty to report the accident to the police and to provide extensive details on the cause of the accident to the Chief administrator of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). We frequently represent individuals who are charged with failure to report an accident in New Jersey which entails significant penalties.

In reality, motorists frequently make admissions, excuses, and complaints during motor vehicle stops. These admissions are noted by the law enforcement officer on the back of the summons and then repeated in municipal court where they are used against the defendant. These are considered voluntary admissions under the rules of evidence and they are therefore admissible as an exception to the hearsay rule.

In determining whether the state has met the two pronged test under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, the first issue that must be proven is probable cause (prong one of the analysis). The state will be required to show that the police officers conducting the search possessed a well-grounded suspicion that the vehicle contained either contraband or evidence of a crime. The state must then establish prong two, that there were exigent circumstances that made it impractical to secure a search warrant. Exigent circumstances have been described by the New Jersey Supreme Court as unforeseen and spontaneous circumstances giving rise to probable cause. State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211 (1981). The events surrounding the incident may occur swiftly. Immediate police action is required or else the evidence may be lost. The vehicle itself may be moved. There may be other suspects waiting to become involved in the criminal enterprise. The police may be unable to immediately leave their positions or secure additional officers to guard the vehicle in question. All of these may lead to the exigent circumstances necessary to establish the second prong of the analysis under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

The New Jersey Supreme Court recognizes that the term “exigent circumstances” is inexact and incapable of precise definition. In determining whether exigent circumstances exist, examine the facts of the case and look for elements of rapidly unfolding, unpredictable events which may cause the loss or destruction of evidence and make it impractical for the police to obtain a search warrant. If both prongs of the test are met, the scope of the warrantless search under the automobile exception is defined by the object of the search and the place where there is probable cause to believe it may be found. This may involve searches of the trunk, the interior of the vehicle, and any closed containers that may be inside the vehicle.

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