The Rules of Stopping and Searching a Car in New Jersey

Charged with a Crime after a Search of my Car

Freedom is possibly the most central value of American life. The right to have autonomy in our movement, liberty in our choices, and protection of our privacy are closely held freedoms, protected by the U.S. Constitution, with certain limitations. These constitutional protections extend to drivers and impact law enforcement’s ability to stop and search a vehicle in New Jersey and across the United States. If you drive a car in the state of New Jersey, it is imperative to understand your rights when it comes to motor vehicle stops and searches.

When Can the Police Stop My Vehicle?

The police can turn on their lights and signal you to pull your vehicle over to the side of the road if they have reasonable suspicion to believe that you have violated the law or committed a traffic offense such as speedingreckless drivingdriving while suspended, or driving while intoxicated (DWI).

Reasonable suspicion does not have a precise legal definition, but has been described in case law as suspicion that amounts to more than a hunch. The basis for suspecting a violation of NJ law has occurred must be particularized and objective. For example, your car meets the description of a stolen vehicle or a vehicle that was reportedly involved in a robbery, burglary, or another crime.

When Can a Police Officer Search My Car?

The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects against unreasonable search and seizure. It exists in circumstances where an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. From a starting point, in order to conduct a search of an area where one has a reasonable expectation of privacy, the police must have a warrant issued by a neutral and detached magistrate.

There are exceptions to the warrant requirement including the automobile exception. The automobile exception allows the police to conduct a search of a vehicle without a warrant under certain circumstances. The rationale for the automobile exception is that vehicles are highly mobile and the process of obtaining a warrant would jeopardize the preservation of evidence.

If the police have probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains evidence of a crime or contraband, they may conduct a search for that particular evidence. It is important to note that their search may not be broader than the areas that may contain the evidence they have probable cause to believe is in the vehicle. So, if the police have probable cause to believe there is an unauthorized firearm in the vehicle, they are not permitted to search containers in the vehicle that would be too small to contain a firearm.

Since drugs are typically small in size, an officer may search the entire car if they supposedly detect the odor of marijuana. In fact, vehicle searches are among the top instances that lead to drug charges for possession of marijuanacocaineheroinLSDMDMA, and other controlled dangerous substances (CDS).

I Was Arrested After an Unlawful Search of My Vehicle

If your rights were initially violated when the police conducted a stop or search of your vehicle, any evidence they obtain as a result of that stop or search may be inadmissible evidence. This is due to a doctrine called the “fruit of the poisonous tree.” In a nutshell, the doctrine holds that if the search was conducted in violation of your rights, the evidence obtained from the search is also invalid.

If you were improperly pulled over by police or your vehicle was unlawfully searched, which led to an arrest, it is possible that the evidence against you may successfully thrown out of court. If you believe that you have been the victim of a stop or search that violated your constitutional rights, the Ocean County criminal defense lawyers at William Proetta Criminal Law can help. We serve all of Ocean County, including Manchester, Lacey, Point Pleasant, Brick, Toms River, Seaside Heights, and Lavallette. Contact our firm right away at (848) 238-2100 for a free consultation with an experienced attorney about your case.

William Proetta

With more than a decade of experience defending clients against criminal charges, founding partner William A. Proetta has successfully handled and tried thousands of cases, from DWI to murder. As a New Jersey native, he has focused his career on helping people in the area where he grew up, serving Middlesex, Ocean, Hudson, and Union counties.