Whether you're a New Jersey resident or just a traveler to the Shore, the State Supreme Court's September, 2015 decision in State v. Witt just put a major dent in personal your rights while operating a vehicle in the State.
On September 24, 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court announced that it will be turning back the clock and reverting to the rules of 1981 for warrantless searches of vehicles. Previous to this ruling, in order to search your vehicle without a warrant, a police officer needed probable cause (explained below) and was also required to demonstrate that an exigent circumstance (essentially, an emergency situation) justified the warrantless search (probable cause + exigent circumstance = warrantless search). Now, as a result of this ruling, police may search a vehicle without a warrant and without an exigent circumstance provided the searching officer has probable cause to believe it contains contraband or evidence of a crime (probable cause = warrantless search).
You may be wondering, what is "probable cause"? A scholarly professor in the field of criminal procedure once explained it as an officer's belief that there's a fair probability (roughly estimated between 28% and 34%) that a crime has or is being committed, or that there is something of evidentiary value (like a gun, drugs, etc.) in the vehicle. The basis for this decision appears, in large part, to be the expediting of the process of a traffic stop. However, important civil liberties previously enjoyed by vehicle operators in New Jersey are being sacrificed.
What this means for you is that it now much easier for police to search your car without your consent and without first obtaining a warrant. In evaluating New Jersey's decision in Witt, it's important that you know that while probable cause is a relatively low threshold it can be attacked by a skilled attorney in the field of criminal law. In addition to attacking the officer's determination of probable cause, the officer's reason for pulling you over in the first place is a matter which must be addressed and should be questioned by an experienced attorney.
If you've recently been involved in an automobile stop and search in New Jersey and are facing criminal charges resulting therefrom, it is important you know your rights. The legal team at Howland, Hess, Guinan, Torpey, Cassidy and O'Connell LLP are available to explain and defend your rights today.
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