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
2. Whether the actions were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop in the first place.
In the New Jersey Supreme Court case of State v. Dickey, 152 N.J. 468 (1998), the Court found the test to be appropriate in the context of a detention following a traffic stop. As a general rule, an investigative traffic stop will become a de facto arrest when the police officer’s conduct is more intrusive than necessary for an investigative stop. Although the courts have thus far declined to impose a time limit on what constitutes a reasonable period of detention, reasonableness appears to be a function of how diligently the police do their jobs at the scene of the stop. The degree of intrusion on the defendant’s liberty during the course of the detention is also an important factor. For example, in Dickey, the Supreme Court held that the two hour detention during which the driver and the passenger were removed from the site of the stop to a distant State Police facility was unreasonable and amounted to a de facto arrest.