Police Could Search Car Involved in Robbery Without a Warrant. State v. Minitee 210 NJ 307 (2012)
Under the circumstances of this case, the trial court correctly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress because the warrantless search of the SUV that was involved in the robbery fit within the scope of the automobile exception to the search warrant requirement.
Under the circumstances of this case, the trial court correctly denied the defendants’ motion to suppress because the warrantless search of the SUV that was involved in the robbery fit within the scope of the automobile exception to the search warrant requirement.
1. The United States Constitution and the New Jersey Constitution guarantee an individual’s right to be secure against unreasonable searches or seizures. A search conducted without a warrant is presumed to be invalid. There are exceptions to the warrant requirement, and the State bears the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the credible evidence that one of the exceptions applies. Only two exceptions are pertinent to this matter—the search incident to arrest exception and the automobile exception. With regard to search incident to arrest, when police place an individual under arrest, they may search his person and the area within his immediate grasp. In the automobile context, New Jersey restricts the scope of the search to the area from which an individual may seize a weapon or destroy evidence. The search in this case cannot be sustained as one incident to Minitee’s arrest. It can only withstand challenge if its circumstances bring it within the scope of the automobile exception.
2. The New Jersey Constitution provides citizens with greater protections than its federal counterpart. Under New Jersey law, three factors are considered before applying the automobile exception to the warrant requirement: 1) whether the stop was unplanned and unforeseen--the police must have no advance knowledge of the events to unfold so that they cannot create the exigency; 2) whether police had probable cause to believe the automobile contained evidence of criminality; and 3) whether exigent circumstances made it impractical to obtain a warrant.
3. The Appellate Division based its conclusion that exigent circumstances were lacking in this case on State v. Pena-Flores, 198 N.J. 6 (2009), which discussed facts that can contribute to the presence of exigent circumstances, such as the time of day, location of the stop, unfolding events establishing probable cause, whether it would be safe to leave the car unguarded, and others. However, the discussion in Pena-Flores was not intended to provide an exhaustive list and was focused on the facts of that case. In this case, other facts demonstrate that police were confronted with exigent circumstances. These include an armed robbery, at least two perpetrators on the run who were possibly armed, a search for them that spanned several municipalities, and an attempt to find a discarded weapon before a bystander was injured or it was taken and hidden for future criminal activity. Additionally, the site where the SUV came to rest was poorly lit and not amenable to a thorough search, and the officers had no assurance that the perpetrators on the run were not in the vicinity and able to fire at them. Because the facts of Pena-Flores are distinguishable from this matter, its legal principles are not dispositive of this case.
4. State v. Martin, 87 N.J. 561 (1981), is instructive. In Martin, police located a car involved in a robbery and could see in the car a glove that matched the description of a glove worn by one of the robbers. The police had the car towed to the station and searched it without a warrant. The Court upheld the search, explaining that the suspected robbers were at large, lighting where the car was discovered was dim, exigency was heightened by the fact that police were actively involved in an ongoing investigation shortly after the robbery and near to where it occurred, and there was an urgent need to ascertain whether the car contained evidence of the armed robbery before the suspects could leave the area or destroy or dispose of other evidence.
5. In this case, it is not dispositive that the vehicle had been at police headquarters for some time before it was searched. The difficulties the officers faced were exacerbated by the multiple sites that had to be examined for clues, the critical need to locate the handgun, and the fact that events were unfolding close to midnight in the dead of winter. The officers’ actions were reasonable under the circumstances.
The judgment of the Appellate Division was REVERSED, and the defendants’ convictions were REINSTATED.