On September 24, 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling in State v. Witt which overturned the Court’s previous ruling in State v. Pena-Flores regarding police searches of automobiles.
In State v. Pena-Flores, the defendant was placed under arrest and the police continued to search the car, where they found a gun and additional drugs. The Court ruled that the exigent circumstances did not exist for the police to continue the search while Pena-Flores was under arrest. In other words, the police would have been required to obtain a warrant to continue searching Pena-Flores’ car in the absence of exigent circumstances.
In State v. Witt, the defendant was pulled over for failure to dim his high beams. The officer then suspected that Witt was intoxicated and placed him under arrest for DWI. The officer continued to search Witt’s car and found a gun in the center console.
Witt appealed his case arguing that the police did not have exigent circumstances to search the car once he was placed under arrest for DWI. The State, however, argued that the exigent circumstances standard of Pena-Flores was unworkable for law enforcement.
The NJ Supreme Court agreed with the State and overturned Pena-Flores. The Court returned to the reasoning set forth in State v. Alston which stated: “when there is probable cause to conduct an immediate search at the scene of the stop, the police are not required to delay the search by seizing and impounding the vehicle pending review of that probable cause determination by a magistrate.” State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 234-35 (1981).
If you have been charged as a result of a police search, it is critical to speak with an attorney regarding your rights and any defenses that may be available to you.