(CN) – A car having its high beams on doesn’t give police the right to search it, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a decision restoring the probable cause standard for car searches.
The ruling revives a previous standard that said a police officer needs only probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of a car, not “exigent circumstances.”
“We do not overturn precedent lightly, and certainly not without good cause or a special justification,” Justice Barry Albin wrote for the 5-2 majority. But because the “exigent circumstances” standard requires police to “take into account a dizzying number of factors” before a search, the state should ignore that precedent and return to the previous “probable cause” standard, he wrote.
William Witt was pulled over by a police officer in late 2012 when he did not dim his high beams while passing as required by law. When stopped, Witt appeared intoxicated and failed sobriety tests. Witt was arrested, and while searching the car the officer found a handgun in the console.
Under current law upheld by a previous New Jersey case, Pena-Flores, the officer had no right to conduct a warrantless search. That case overturned the state’s previous position that warrantless searches of cars were allowed as long as police had probable cause to search the car.
In the 2009 Pena-Flores ruling, the New Jersey high court’s 4-3 decision overturned the probable cause standard, which had been state law since 1981. Instead of allowing searches based merely on probable cause, Pena-Flores instituted a checklist of things required before a cop could conduct a warrantless car search.
In Witt’s case, the officer had the right to search for open containers of alcohol but did not have the right to conduct a warrantless search of the entire car for other things, the trial court ruled. Discovery of the handgun was therefore suppressed in court.
An appellate division court upheld the lower court. It found that, because the police officer was parked when Witt passed him with the high beams on, the officer’s car did not count as an “oncoming vehicle” and therefore the officer did not even have the right to stop Witt for his high beams.
Waiting for a warrant for a roadside automobile search can take upwards of an hour, and subjects both the officer and the driver to unnecessary risk of traffic accident, not to mention inconveniences the driver, a state supreme court committee found.
“Experience and common sense persuade us that the exigent-circumstances test in Pena-Flores does not provide greater liberty or security to New Jersey’s citizens and … is too complex and difficult for a reasonable police officer to apply to fast-moving and evolving events that require prompt action,” Albin wrote.
The judge also wrote that police have used consent searches of cars-not telephonic warrants, as judges had hoped-which have a checkered history of abuse. A 2010 special investigation by the state judiciary into police searches found that only 14 of 122 search warrants that year were telephonic, and none of them were for cars.
“We are not willing to conclude that the increase in consent searches after Pena-Flores is serendipitous,” Albin wrote.
While Thursday’s ruling, which remands the case back to trial court, grants police more leeway in warrantless searches, it also upholds the need for a warrant when cars are impounded or towed.
Not all the justices agreed with overturning Pena-Flores, however, with Justice Jaynee LaVecchia leading the dissent and calling the decision “a radical change in our jurisprudence” and a “backward step.”
Joined by Justice Mary Cuff in the dissent, LaVecchia wrote that New Jersey’s “persistence has paid off” in that the state has long sought to overturn the Pena-Flores precedent.
“The state does not want to show exigency,” LaVecchia wrote. “It wants a relatively automatic exception to the general warrant requirement when it comes to cars, so long as the police encounter leading to the search is spontaneous and unforeseen.”
LaVecchia called the Pena-Flores precedent “soundly reasoned and fully supported,” adding that telephonic warrants needn’t take so long to obtain and that the process should be improved, not scrapped. She also pointed to other states that have workable telephonic and electronic warrant programs, such as Utah and Missouri.
“The arc of history may prove embarrassing indeed for my colleagues in the majority,” she wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the New Jersey State Bar Association had opposed overturning the Pena-Flores standard.
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