Examining the Two Prong Test for the Automobile Exception in NJ

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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