Officers Had Probable Cause to Search Defendant’s Vehicle Due to a Canine Sniff, But Were Required to Request a Search Warrant
Appellate Docket No.: A-2334-21
Decided June 30, 2022
Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
In a recent published decision, the Appellate Division of New Jersey affirmed a trial court’s granting of a motion to suppress after officers had probable cause to search defendant’s vehicle due to a canine sniff, but were required to request a search warrant instead of searching the vehicle right there.
In Smart, Police conducted an investigatory stop after surveilling the car for more than an hour and developing information that front seat passenger, Kyle A. Smart, was engaged in drug activity. At the roadside stop, no evidence of drug activity was observed in plain view; the occupants of the car neither made incriminating statements nor furtive movements; and the driver denied consent to search. Police then requested a K-9 unit. The dog alerted to the presence of narcotics, leading to a warrantless search of the car and seizure of a loaded handgun and drugs from the cabin.
Finding police had reasonable and articulable suspicion to pull over the vehicle, the motion judge upheld the stop and further determined probable cause arose when the canine sniff revealed the presence of narcotics in the car. However, the judge found the circumstances giving rise to probable cause were not “unforeseeable and spontaneous,” justifying a warrantless search under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement pursuant to State v. Witt, 223 N.J. 409, 450 (2015). Accordingly, the judge suppressed the evidence seized.
The State appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed for substantially the same reasons, finding the police had reasonable suspicion due to defendant’s prior interactions, criminal history, and the area being a high drug crime area. Requesting the canine was appropriate and police gained probable cause to search the vehicle once the canine had a positive sniff. However, the officers’ probable cause was not “unforeseeable and spontaneous” and therefore, required a warrant instead of the officers searching the vehicle there. The evidence must be suppressed accordingly.
This case is important to understand there are three types of interactions with law enforcement, each involving different constitutional implications depending on the event’s impact on an individual’s freedom to leave the scene. First, a “field inquiry is essentially a voluntary encounter between the police and a member of the public in which the police ask questions and do not compel an individual to answer.” State v. Rosario, 229 N.J. 263, 271 (2017). The individual is free to leave, therefore field inquiries do not require a well-grounded suspicion of criminal activity before commencement. Id. at 271-72; see also Elders, 192 N.J. at 246. Second, an investigatory stop or detention, sometimes referred to as a Terry stop, involves a temporary seizure that restricts a person’s movement. A Terry stop implicates a constitutional requirement that there be “‘specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts,’ give rise to a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” Elders, 192 N.J. at 247 (quoting State v. Rodriguez, 172 N.J. 117, 126 (2002)); see also Rosario, 229 N.J. at 272. Third, an arrest requires “probable cause and generally [are] supported by an arrest warrant or by demonstration of grounds that would have justified one.” Rosario, 229 N.J. at 272. Here, probable cause could justify a warrantless motor vehicle search if the findings were unforeseeable and spontaneous, otherwise a search warrant is necessary.
If you have been charged with any first degree crime, second degree crime, third degree crime, fourth degree crime, disorderly persons offense, municipal ordinance violation, or traffic ticket / DUI/DWI, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney today. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients in Superior Court and municipal court for criminal matters like the present case. We vigorously defend our clients by fighting to ensure prosecutors, police, and even judges follow the law.
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