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Understanding “unforeseen and spontaneous” in auto searches

On Behalf of | Aug 22, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

In New Jersey, when a person is subject to a traffic stop and the law enforcement officer wants to conduct a search of their automobile, there can be confusion as to what they are legally allowed to do. In addition to a lack of knowledge about the law, fear can play a role in simply letting the officer conduct the search.

However, motorists have rights and that includes the ability to refuse to allow an officer to search. This was clarified in a New Jersey Supreme Court decision this past spring. Anyone subject to a traffic stop should be aware of it.

Key points about warrantless car searches

According to the decision, law enforcement cannot move forward with a warrantless search of a person’s automobile unless there are “unforeseeable and spontaneous” circumstances that sparked their suspicion that a criminal law was being violated.

This stems from differences in the state constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. New Jersey has more protections in place against unreasonable search and seizure than the U.S. Constitution. This case began in 2021 when evidence after a traffic stop was suppressed over the issue.

A man had been arrested and faced extensive charges for having drugs, weapons and ammunition which were found in his vehicle during a police search. The man claimed he did not have drugs and said no when the officers asked if they could conduct a search of his vehicle. A canine was brought to the scene, indicated there were drugs and officers used this as a justification to search the vehicle.

According to the judge, this did not meet the threshold of unforeseeable and spontaneous. Since officers had been watching this vehicle due to previous allegations and descriptions, they were obligated to get a warrant.

Knowing when officers can search a vehicle is key with a criminal defense

No matter what a person might or might not have in their vehicle at the time of a police traffic stop, it is imperative to remember that they have the right to refuse to consent to a search. Still, many people are unaware of it and find themselves facing charges when they otherwise might have avoided arrest.

The failure on the part of the officer to get permission could also help with the criminal defense if an arrest was made. Scrutinizing the case and whether officers had unforeseeable and spontaneous justification to search is vital and could make a major difference in the result.


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