If You’ve Ever Been Pulled Over You Must Read This Blog: Part I

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

On September 24 the N.J. Supreme Court issued an opinion in State v. Witt that may be one of the most important in recent memory for people facing criminal charges arising out of traffic stops. With a dissent, the total length of the written opinion is 95 pages so it will be presented as a series of blogs.

Part I will present the facts of the case and explain why different standards of Fourth Amendment protections exist between state and federal law. The facts of the case are rather mundane. The defendant drove past a stopped police vehicle at night without dimming his brights. It is questionable whether this is actually a traffic violation because the statute requiring motorists to dim their brights refers to oncoming vehicles rather than stopped vehicles. Nevertheless, the officer initiated a Terry Stop, and found the defendant to be intoxicated. After the defendant failed field sobriety tests he was placed under arrest.

The officer then searched the defendant’s vehicle to look for “intoxicants.” A weapon was found leading to serious charges. The trial court, and Appellate Division both suppressed the weapon based on a lack of exigent circumstances pursuant to a case called Pena-Flores. According to that case, in order for a New Jersey police officer to search a vehicle without a warrant (sometimes called the ‘vehicle exception), they must have (1) probable cause to search, and (2) exigent circumstances must exist. The facts of this case reveal no exigency, because the defendant was already in custody so he could possibly tamper with evidence in his vehicle. What makes this case groundbreaking is that the very standard of Pena-Flores was questioned. But we will get to that in the next blog.

This blog will now explain the confusion that surrounds different standards for federal, and state law. Under federal law the automobile exception does not require exigent circumstances but only probable cause. How can there be two different standards? The basic answer is that the U.S. Constitution, and the Supreme Court decisions that interpret, and apply that Constitution are binding on all the states. The Supreme Court sets the minimum standard of protection. But if states choose, they can extend greater protection onto their citizens. This is a one-way street. A state can increase the constitutional protections of a citizen, but not reduce them. For example, Pena-Flores offered more protection for motorists than the federal standard by adding an exigency requirement. They could not have reduced the probable cause requirement to a lower threshold because that would be taking away rights.

The following blog will discuss the new standard (really a reversal to an old standard) for motor vehicle stops in New Jersey.

Contact experienced, aggressive New Jersey criminal lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

State vs. Witt — Blog #4 Issue Failure to Dim Headlights as Probable Cause

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