Can Police Always Ask to Search My Vehicle?

Submitted by New Jersey Drug Crime Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

New Jersey’s Appellate Division recently decided a case regarding whether the Police Always Ask to Search My Vehicle.  The defendant was driving just before midnight when two officers in an unmarked vehicle observed the defendant switch lanes without signaling and he also had a faulty brake light.  The officers pulled the vehicle over and saw multiple air fresheners in the car and a large amount of cash.  The defendant appeared very nervous so the officers requested to search the defendant’s vehicle.  The defendant first agreed, then asked if the officers could wait to search until his brother, the owner of the car, could be there.  The officers denied the request and the defendant fled until he was eventually caught.  The defendant threw a black object out of the vehicle during the pursuit, later found to be 2250 packs of heroin and air fresheners.

The defendant pled guilty to second-degree eluding, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2(b); second-degree possession of heroin with the intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(a)(1) and -5(b)(2); third-degree possession of heroin, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1); and third-degree hindering, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-3(b)(1). On the second-degree convictions, defendant was sentenced to seven years in prison with forty-two months of parole ineligibility. On the third-degree convictions, he was sentenced to four and five years in prison. The sentences were run concurrent.

Defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing the officers did not have a right to request to search the defendant’s vehicle.  To request consent to search during a motor vehicle stop, police must have a reasonable articulable suspicion that the search will produce evidence of illegal wrongdoing.  The appearance of nervousness is not sufficient grounds, however nervousness and conflicting statements, along with indicia of wrongdoing, can be cumulative factors enough for a reasonable suspicion.  The Court found that the defendant’s nervousness along with the excess air fresheners and money in the center console constituted the reasonable suspicion necessary for the officers to request to search the defendant’s vehicle.

The Court further ruled that even if the police unlawfully requested to search the defendant’s vehicle, when the defendant fled, he attenuated the evidence from the alleged improper police conduct.  Attenuation occurs when:

  1. there was a lapse of time between the illegal conduct and the seizure of evidence
  2. there were intervening circumstances, and analyzing
  3. the flagrancy and purpose of the police misconduct.

It should be noted that the lapse in time is not as important as the other two factors. In this case, there was a sufficient lapse of time, there were intervening circumstances which was the defendant’s flee, and the police misconduct had a proper purpose and was not flagrant.  Therefore, the defendant fleeing sufficiently attenuated the alleged police misconduct in requesting to search the vehicle.

Although the defendant did not successfully suppress the evidence, the case was remanded on sentencing because he was given a sentence that was different than what was promised by the judge prior to sentencing.

In summary, police can only request to search your vehicle if they have a reasonable suspicion of illegal conduct.  If they unlawfully request to search your vehicle, but the evidence seized was attenuated from the unlawful request to search, the evidence will still be used against you.  So, don’t run, don’t act inappropriately, be respectful, and do not do anything that would raise any suspicion of illegal conduct.  If you do you will be giving, yes giving, the police an excuse to act inappropriately to search your auto when they would not have otherwise been allowed.

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