NJ v. Vega: Marijuana, Firearm Search Ruling

State of New Jersey v. David Vega

Docket No. A-3527-21

Decided March 25, 2024

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Court of New Jersey decided defendant’s appeal from an order denying his motion to suppress marijuana located in the center console and a firearm in a backpack found in the trunk following a warrantless search of his vehicle.

In January 2020, officers observed a vehicle speeding, failing to use its turn signal, and failing to maintain its lane. As a result, officers initiated a motor vehicle stop. When one of the officers approached the driver’s side window, he detected the odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the vehicle. The officer noted that the burnt marijuana smell continued when defendant exited the vehicle, and the odor of raw marijuana lingered in the vehicle after defendant walked away. After conducting field sobriety tests on defendant, officers determined that he had failed the tests. Defendant advised the officers that his insurance information was on the passenger seat of his vehicle. One officer looked for it on and around the passenger seat as well as in the glove box. He located some insurance information, but it was expired. Defendant was subsequently arrested for driving under the influence.

Officers then searched the vehicle due to the smell of raw marijuana coming from the interior of the car. After the search concluded, officers had located a prescription bottle containing a plastic bag of raw marijuana in the center console, a backpack containing a Glock 9mm. handgun with a loaded magazine, and both a box and a plastic baggie containing additional 9mm. ammunition in the trunk. Officers continued the search to the trunk based on the smell of the marijuana in the car’s interior compared to the small amount found in the console, because officers believed there was more marijuana in the vehicle. After the backpack was seized, officers indicated that they continued to smell raw marijuana and also searched the other luggage and the remainder of the trunk, spare tire area, and under the hood, but found nothing else.

At the suppression hearing, the officer testified that he believed the odor of marijuana was a valid exception to the requirement of a warrant to search the entire vehicle, including the trunk, “[u]p until the point where I wouldn’t . . . smell any more marijuana or suspect any more criminal activity[.]” The officer conceded that he never obtained defendant’s consent to search the car and did not see the marijuana in plain view. The officer testified that he left the bottle on the driver’s seat during the rest of the search, while continuing to smell marijuana in the car’s interior. Another officer testified that the search continued because the smell of marijuana was still present throughout the vehicle.

The trial judge issued a written opinion, in which he found the officers’ testimonies they smelled marijuana prior to finding the bottle in the center console credible, even though they did not openly discuss the smell at that time. The court indicated that their credibility was bolstered by the officers’ continued search after believing the continued odor could not be attributed to the small amount found in the bottle. The trial court applied the automobile exception to the marijuana found in the center console. However, it declined to apply the automobile exception to the firearm found in the trunk because even though the court believed the officers had probable cause to continue the search for the source of the odor, the BWC footage showed the interior search had not been exhausted before the officer opened the trunk. The court held the search of the trunk was therefore illegal. Nonetheless, the court admitted the evidence found in the trunk anyway under the doctrine of inevitable discovery, articulating that the expansion of the search to include the trunk would have been inevitable after no additional marijuana was found during the remainder of the interior search. Defendant appealed.

On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court should have granted his motion to suppress the evidence found in the car’s trunk because the police lacked probable cause to search it. He argued the automobile exception did not apply to the trunk because the police never had probable cause to search the trunk based on the odor emanating from the car’s interior. Defendant also argued that the inevitable discovery exception should not apply because the search of the trunk lacked probable cause, without regard to whether it was initiated during or after the completed interior search.

Even though the odor of marijuana alone could, prior to the Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act (“CREAMMA”), constitute probable cause to search a car’s interior, “a search which is reasonable at its inception may [nonetheless] violate the Fourth Amendment by virtue of its intolerable intensity and scope.” State v. Cohen, 254 N.J. 308, 320 (2023) (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 18 (1968)). In Cohen, the Court affirmed the requirement for additional facts beyond “simply detecting the smell of marijuana from the interior of the car” to create probable cause to extend a search to other areas of the vehicle. 254 N.J. at 324.

Ultimately, the Appellate Court granted defendant’s appeal. The court determined that since no additional observations pointed to the trunk as a specific source of the odor, the police lacked probable cause to extend the search to that compartment. Thus, the defendant’s motion to suppress the weapon found in the trunk should have been granted. Under the inevitable discovery doctrine, the State still cannot meet their burden by clear and convicting evidence that (1) proper, normal[,] and specific investigatory procedures would have been pursued in order to complete the investigation of the case; (2) under all of the surrounding relevant circumstances the pursuit of those procedures would have inevitably resulted in the discovery of the evidence; and (3) the discovery of the evidence through the use of such procedures would have occurred wholly independently of the discovery of such evidence by unlawful means. State v. Sugar, 100 N.J. 214, 238 (1985). The court opined that the facts of the case did not give rise to probable cause to search the trunk.  As such, the State cannot meet its burden to show the trunk inevitably would have been searched using “proper, normal[,] and specific investigatory procedures” and it may not rely on the inevitable discovery exception to revive the admissibility of the suppressed evidence. Accordingly, the trial court’s order denying defendant’s suppression motion was reversed, in part, regarding the recovery of the firearm, and defendant’s conviction and sentence were vacated.

At Hark & Hark, we are experienced attorneys who represent clients in Superior Court for issues like the previously discussed case pertaining to motions to suppress evidence obtained unlawfully without a warrant. We work hard to ensure that our clients receive exceptional representation in order for them to receive the most favorable outcome in their case as a result.

We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing a similar situation to that of the defendant in this case, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic County, Bergen County, Burlington County, Camden County, Cape May County, Cumberland County, Essex County, Gloucester County, Hudson County, Hunterdon County, Mercer County, Middlesex County, Monmouth County, Morris County, Ocean County, Passaic County, Salem County, Somerset County, Sussex County, Union County, and Warren County and any town including Audubon, Gloucester City, Oaklyn, Audubon Park, Gloucester Township, Pennsauken, Barrington, Haddon Heights, Pine Hill, Bellmawr, Haddon Township, Pine Valley, Berlin Borough, Haddonfield, Runnemede, Berlin Township, Hi-Nella, Somerdale, Brooklawn, Laurel Springs, Stratford, Camden, Lawnside, Voorhees, Cherry Hill, Lindenwold, Waterford, Chesilhurst, Magnolia, Winslow, Clementon, Merchantville, Woodlynne, Collingswood, Mt. Ephraim, and Gibbsboro.


Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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