What is the penalty for an illegal search of my car?

If the police search my car what happens at a “Suppression” hearing?

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

The New Jersey Supreme Court Ruled:  In  a blog I wrote yesterday the court ruled the Ocean County/Lakewood NJ police preformed an illegal search of a defendant’s car.  Now that the court ruled the search was illegal the court them addressed the evidence found in the illegal search for which the defendants were charged:

Having found that the stop at issue was unlawful in light of the State’s failure to demonstrate reasonable suspicion, we consider whether the evidence was properly suppressed. In State v. Holland, we explained that [a]s a general rule, evidence directly seized in violation of the warrant requirement is suppressed at trial. Sometimes the police obtain evidence not as a primary result of warrantless conduct, but as a consequence of it. During an illegal search, for example, the police might acquire information that leads to other evidence useful to prosecutors. Under that circumstance, the later-derived evidence might be suppressed or excluded as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” [176 N.J. 344, 353 (2003) (internal citations omitted).] And in State v. Bryant, we specified that “evidence that is seized in a search incident to the original unlawful search is . . . excluded under the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine” to ensure that the deterrent aim of the exclusionary rule is realized.  227 N.J. 60, 71 (2016).

Here, there is no evidence that defendants’ car would have been searched if not for the unsupported stop.  Without the stop, the officers would not have smelled marijuana, would not have called for a canine sniff, and would not have sought a warrant.  The search was unquestionably incident to the stop, and the evidence obtained through the search was thus subject to suppression. A search warrant cannot serve as a rubberstamp to justify the police’s pre-warrant conduct.  The legality of that conduct rises or falls based on the State’s ability to provide independent justification for the pre-warrant seizure that led to the search.  Here, that pre-warrant conduct was the investigatory stop.

By sitting on its hands at the evidentiary hearing and refusing to produce witnesses or evidence, the State left the trial judge no option but to suppress the evidence.  The State sacrificed its case to an unproven and unsupported search warrant theory in the vain hope of having better positioning on burden of proof grounds.  The State’s refusal to present any evidence at the motion hearing amounted to a failure to carry its burden as to the stop.  The search warrant here would not have been obtained but for the motor vehicle stop, and the trial court properly granted defendants’ motion to suppress.      The order of the trial court, granting defendants’ motion to suppress, is affirmed.

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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