Police in New Jersey are obviously trained to spot signs of criminal activity during routine traffic stops. However, police do not have the right to search your car just because you have been pulled over for a motor vehicle offense.
The first step in determining whether police can search your car is whether the police had “reasonable suspicion” to stop you in the first place. Law enforcement officials may stop motor vehicles when they have a reasonable suspicion that either the vehicle or occupant is subject to seizure for violation of the law. Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 664, (1973). New Jersey Courts have held that a police officer’s observation of a motor vehicle offense is sufficient to justify a stop. State v. Murphy, 238 N.J. Super. 546, 553 (App. Div. 1990).
Next, it is important to keep in mind that any search made without a warrant is presumed to be illegal unless an exception to the warrant requirement can be shown by police. In the context of automobile searches, the most frequently found exceptions to police needing a warrant include: 1) Search of vehicle after arrest. This exception is no longer allowed by the courts in New Jersey; 2) The so-called “automobile exception. Under current law (see State v. Pena-Flores) this requires police to have both a) “probable cause” and b) exigent circumstances;” 3) abandonment; and 4) consent.
If police have searched your vehicle and found drugs, weapons, or other contraband and none of the exceptions to the warrant requirement exist (or are subject to challenge) an attorney skilled in pre-trial motions may be able to have the evidence tossed out after a suppression hearing. If you have been convicted of a crime after such a search, it may be possible to reverse your conviction and arrest on appeal.