State v. Witt Part II: The Confusion of Exigency

 Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

A previous blog presented the facts of State v. Witt and explained that up until now Pena-Flores was the governing case in New Jersey when it came to warrantless vehicle searches. Under that case a police officer must meet three requirements to search a vehicle without a warrant:

  1. Unexpected stop
  2. Probable cause to search (federal standard)
  3. Exigent circumstances (state specific standard)

Recently, Pennsylvania got rid of their exigency requirement for causing confusion, and inconsistency in the courts. Until now, New Jersey remained one of the few states with an exigency requirement, and most of the other states with such a requirement had low populations, and in turn less crime. It wasn’t always this way. In 1981, State v. Alston adopted the U.S. Supreme Courts standard of probable cause by itself for warrantless vehicle searches. Alston’s only requirement were that the circumstances that led to the vehicle search be unforeseen and spontaneous by the officer. In other words, the officer could not engineer a stop solely for the purpose of conducting a search. The very nature of vehicles being movable property led to an assumed exigency.

However, this all changed when in 2000, State v. Cooke adopted the exigency requirement, and this was reaffirmed in 2009 by State v. Pena-Flores. Cooke set forth factors that would allow officers to decide what counted as an exigent circumstance but these were sometimes confusing. After the Pena-Flores decision, the Supreme Court Special Committee on Telephonic and Electronic Search Warrants was created. They found that despite the availability of ‘telephonic’ warrants (one of the main arguments against an officer’s defense of exigency) there were NOT statewide established procedures for obtaining them. It was also found that telephonic warrants often took longer to obtain (usually an hour) than previously thought. Consent-to-search cases were skyrocketing because police sought consent as a way to maneuver around telephonic warrants, but avoid breaking the law. It was questionable how informed any of these consents were.

The next blog will discuss the N.J. Supreme Court’s decision to depart from Pena-Flores and what it means for you.

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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