The Community Caretaking Exception: New Jersey Law

The New Jersey Supreme Court has also recognized the existence of the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. Most of these scenarios concern fact patterns where individuals are driving extremely slow late at night leading officers to believe something is wrong. In these situations, it is reasonable for officers to believe that something is wrong with the car, something is wrong with the driver, or that the vehicle could constitute a hazard to other motorists. Each of these situations is justified under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement.

In State v. Washington, 296 N.J. Super 569 (App. Div. 1997), the observations of the arresting officer involved a vehicle that was weaving within the lane of travel and proceeding at a speed which was nine miles per hour below the posted speed limit. The court ruled that the traffic stop of the vehicle was justified based on the community caretaking exception. The court noted that the objective basis upon which to consider traffic stops under this exception is based upon the totality of the circumstances. Although weaving within the lane may not technically be a motor vehicle violation, the driving conduct offers sufficient justification for the officer to conduct a motor vehicle stop. Vehicles operated in this manner may constitute a danger to other motorists. In addition, there may be something wrong with the driver or the vehicle itself.

Apart from the drunk driving context, New Jersey case law has held that the community caretaking exception will also justify a limited search based on concerns for public safety. In State v. Diloreto, 180 N.J. 264 (2004), the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the police were justified in performing a pat-down search of a purportedly missing and endangered person. The justification for the search was based on the officers concerns that the endangered person might seek to injure himself or the police.

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