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DUI Matter Changes Warrantless Search Standard In NJ

DUI Matter Changes Warrantless Search Standard In NJ

State v. William L. Witt, (A-9-14)(074468), 435 N.J. Super. 608, 610-11 (App. Div. 2014), 219 N.J. 624 (2014), began as a possible driving under the influence (DUI) (N.J.S.A. 39:4-50) case but, due to the warrantless search of Witt’s vehicle, led to an indictment for second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm (N.J.S.A. 2C:39- 5(b)) and second-degree possession of a weapon by a convicted person (N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7(b)). Following a trial and appeals in this matter the result was the overturning of State v. Pena-Flores, 198 N.J. 6 (2009), which has been the standard for automobile searches in New Jersey. After being pulled over and removed from the vehicle for field sobriety tests, which police claim he failed. After arresting Witt, the police searched the vehicle for “intoxicants” and discovered a handgun in the center console. The trial court followed Pena-Flores in holding that the warrantless search of the vehicle, beyond a plain view search for open containers of alcohol, was in violation of Witt’s rights and suppressed the handgun. The N.J. Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision to suppress the gun finding that there were no circumstances involved in this matter which could give rise to justification of the warrantless search. The N.J. Supreme Court held, days ago, that there should be a return to the standard of State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211 (1981), wherein the automobile exception to the warrant requirement allows police with probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime to search a vehicle when unforseeable circumstances arise during a motor vehicle stop. State v. Cooke, 163 N.J. 657 (2000), added the need for exigent circumstances to the standard set in Alston and Pena-Flores reaffirmed Cooke adding a preference for the use of available technology to obtain warrants in if at all practicable. The State argued that the Pena-Flores standard was overly subjective, lacked uniform application, placed police officers in harm’s way, motorists were ultimately consenting rather than the police applying for warrants, and where vehicles were impounded the intrusion was greater than that involved in a roadside search. The NJ Supreme Court considered the standard established by the United States Supreme Court, which requires only that the vehicle is easily moveable, including even mobile homes, and the officer has probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of an offense. The NJ Supreme Court further considered the difficulty caused to officers by upholding the standards in Pena-Flores against the Constitutional protections it provides. The Court opted for a return to the standard established in Alston, which offers police much broader authority to avoid obtaining a search warrant than under Pena-Flores. If you are facing charges of DUI, refusal or other criminal charges as a result of an included search of your vehicle, you should obtain experienced criminal defense counsel immediately. For more information about DUI, controlled dangerous substances (CDS) in a motor vehicle, illegal possession of a firearm, other weapons offenses or other serious motor vehicle charges in NJ visit DarlingFirm.com. This blog is for informational purposes and not intended to replace the advice of an attorney.

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