Large Gap Between Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause

Submitted by New Jersey Drug Crime Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

State v. Lewis, decided by the Appellate Division, on June 25th, is an appeal of a conviction partially based on a motion to suppress evidence that defendant argues was improperly denied by the trial court. The relevant facts are that the defendant was spotted by an undercover detective when he pulled up in his vehicle to a woman and they entered a convenient store together. The detective had previously become suspicious of the woman herself because she was standing in the rain and appeared to be anxiously waiting for someone. After exiting the convenient store both the woman and defendant appeared to notice another officer in an unmarked vehicle and become nervous. The arresting officer noticed the vehicle fail to active its turn signal when pulling out of the parking lot, and then observed it had tinted windows that appeared to be illegal (SEE EARLIER BLOG CONCERNING WINDOW TINT AND MINOR TRAFFIC INFRACTIONS). Upon activating his emergency lights, the officer saw the defendant reach for the center console. Both defendant and the woman said they did not know each other and that the defendant was merely giving her a ride home. But their initial contact outside of the convenient store contradicted this story. Upon being asked for driving credentials the defendant immediately said he could explain why he had so much cash in his car. The defendant would not consent to a search of his vehicle, nor provide a straight answer about whether anything illegal was located inside. Both defendant and the woman were asked to exit the vehicle, and were not free to leave. Readers may remember from previous blogs that this amounts to constructive detention and initiates Miranda rights, regardless of whether they are read.

Officers then conducted a warrantless search of the vehicle and found drugs and over $1000. of cash. There are two questions to ask when determining whether a warrantless search of a vehicle is justified:

  1. Was there probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained evidence of criminal activity?
  2. Did exigent circumstances exist that would overcome the strong judicial preference for getting a warrant?

See State v. Minitee, State v. Pena-Flores, and State v. Dunlap for further reference as to warrantless vehicle searches.

The Appellate Division found the facts here amounted to reasonable suspicion but not probable cause (it probably would have been different had drugs been spotted in plain view). Here the only activity that was actually illegal was failure to use a turn signal, and possibly the tinted windows. Even though the circumstances could easily lead to the inference of a drug sale, it did not amount to the high standard of probable cause. As a result the conviction was reversed.

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Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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