State v. Witt – DWI And Other Infractions
Drivers and passengers beware. The recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision in State v. Witt dramatically widens the range of situations where a police officer can search a motor vehicle without first getting a search warrant. Prior to this decision, the law in all of New Jersey was, pursuant to State v. Pena-Flores, that a police officer in had to have 1) probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime and 2) an emergency circumstance (called “exigency”) justifying why it would be impractical to get a warrant, even over the telephone, before searching the car. Under the law now, the automobile exception to the warrant requirement allows a police officer to search a motor vehicle merely when the offer has probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of an offense and the circumstances giving rise to the probable cause are unforeseeable and spontaneous.
When Pena-Flores was the controlling law, officers used to forego applying for a warrant during a motor vehicle stop and attempted to get the driver’s consent to search the car. Many consent searches yielded evidence of crimes, such as drugs and weapons, but often there was a legal deficiency in the driver’s consent in that it wasn’t made knowingly or it was coerced by the officer. As a result, many drivers’ constitutional rights had been violated, the evidence that the officers seized was suppressed or thrown out, and the unlawful charges against the drivers were dismissed.
One effect of the relaxed legal standard in Witt is that the number of consent searches will drop dramatically as it will be easier for officers justify warrantless searches of automobiles. Also, it will be increasingly difficult for a person charged with a crime to get the evidence an officer seized from his car suppressed or thrown out, and his case will be tougher to win. This means that it is crucial for a person in such a situation after a traffic stop to hire a knowledgeable and skilled criminal defense attorney.
Another situation that could happen relates to motorists suspected of DWI. Prior to the new law, officers who had arrested someone for DWI were permitted only to search areas of the vehicle where they might find evidence of drinking or open containers of alcohol. Now, they will be able to search the entire vehicle – including the trunk – so, for example, if a person pulled over for DWI has an illegal weapon in his trunk, he’ll now be facing much more serious charges than just the DWI – he’ll also be facing felony charges and time in state prison. This new law unfortunately casts a wider net of potential for abuse by law enforcement officers over the citizens of New Jersey to pull them into the criminal justice system.