New Jersey Criminal Lawyer – Appellate Opinions – State v. Minitee

State v. Minitee, N.J. Super. (App. Div. 2010)

The Pena-Flores Court thus established three basic requirements to uphold the warrantless search of a motor vehicle: (1) the stop must be unexpected; (2) the police must have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime; and (3) there must exist exigent circumstances under which it is impracticable to obtain a warrant. As to the exigency requirement, the Court emphasized that it “encompasses far broader considerations than the mere mobility of the vehicle.”

Applying these principles here, we hold that the police clearly had sufficient time to seek a warrant before searching the SUV the day after seizing it. After the car was taken into custody, there was no justification to search it without a warrant. Once the vehicle was removed from the scene, impounded, and taken to the Fort Lee police station, the State had sufficient time to obtain either a telephonic warrant or a traditional one. The warrantless search of the vehicle once it was in the custody of the State was clearly unjustified and unconstitutional.

Applying this mandate to these facts, the exigency that existed at the scene dissipated once the SUV was removed and placed in the custody of the Fort Lee Police Department. Thereafter, the police clearly had sufficient time to obtain, at a minimum, a telephonic warrant before searching the vehicle. Stated differently, the exigent circumstances that permitted the police to seize the SUV from the scene do not justify its subsequent warrantless search at the Fort Lee police station.

We harmonize the seemingly inconsistent holdings in Martin and Pena-Flores by finding that the exigent circumstances that existed at the scene only permitted the police to seize the vehicle and transport it to a secure location. Thereafter, the police were constitutionally required to obtain a warrant before searching the vehicle. This approach distinguishes between, and guards against, unreasonable searches and unreasonable seizures, the two fundamental protections embodied in Article I, Paragraph 7 of our State Constitution.

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