New Jersey Supreme Court Clarifies Searches of Motor Vehicles During Traffic Stops
In a recent case, the New Jersey Supreme Court further delineated the circumstances under which officers can use the “protective sweep doctrine” as an exception to the warrant requirement when seeking to search a motor vehicle during a traffic stop.
The case that gave rise to this precedential decision was State v. Robinson, which involved the driver of a vehicle pulled over in a suspected drug zone. A police officer conducted a traffic stop when he observed Robinson allegedly driving unsafely with three passengers in his car. After pulling him over, the officer requested Robinson’s license and registration, and was reportedly struck by his confusing answers when identifying himself. Apparently, Robinson told the officer that his license was currently suspended, but provided registration and proof of insurance.
Upon further investigation, the officer discovered that Robinson and one of his passengers had outstanding warrants for their arrests and were known to carry weapons. The officer then requested backup, and four officers arrived on the scene shortly thereafter. The occupants of the vehicle were asked to exit the vehicle, while Robinson and one other passenger were arrested. None of the car’s occupants resisted arrest or were found with weapons on their persons. The car was then searched for weapons, while one of the passengers left her purse on the front passenger seat. When the officer lifted the purse to search the seat, he allegedly felt a gun inside.
After removing the gun from the purse, the officers arrested the other two occupants of the vehicle and all four were charged with unlawful possession of a handgun. As the case proceeded, the defense filed a motion to suppress the firearm, arguing that it should be excluded from evidence because it was the product of an illegal search. The original motion was denied by the trial court, but taken up on appeal, the Appellate Division panel determined that the search was, in fact, unconstitutional. The State justified the search as falling within the realm of the protective sweep exception to the warrant requirement. Ultimately, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate decision, stating in its opinion that the protective sweep exception did not apply in this case.
Illegal Searches in New Jersey and Exceptions to the Search Warrant Requirement
In general, law enforcement officials cannot search a vehicle or any other personal property or premises without first obtaining a search warrant, unless the search satisfies one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement. The “protective sweep doctrine” is one such exception, first articulated in the case Terry v. State of Ohio. In Terry v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a law enforcement officer can quickly search a suspect without executing an arrest if the officer has a reasonable suspicion, supported by “specific and articulable facts,” that the suspect may be armed and presently dangerous. A subsequent case, Maryland v. Buie, extended the protective sweep doctrine to include searches of rooms in private dwellings. Thus, when officers are making an arrest in a private residence, they can search adjacent rooms if they have reasonable belief, based on specific and articulable facts, that the rooms may contain another person who poses an immediate danger.
Essentially, the protective sweep doctrine allows officers to conduct a quick search if said search is a reasonable action to protect their safety, based on specific and articulable facts. In the recent case of State v. Robinson, the State argued that the officer had a valid exception to the warrant requirement, under the protective sweep doctrine, to search the vehicle and the items contained therein. However, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the protective sweep exception did not apply in this case because all of the car’s occupants had been removed from the vehicle and none of them had attempted to retrieve the handgun from the purse. In other words, the five officers on the scene may have suspected that a weapon was present, but they had sufficiently secured themselves from any of the vehicle’s occupants accessing the weapon.
If any of the car’s occupants could have immediately accessed the vehicle and the weapon inside, then the protective sweep may have been justified, and the exception to the warrant requirement, valid. The fundamental question is: did the officer lawfully search the car and remove the gun without a warrant to protect himself and the other officers at the scene? The answer, according to the New Jersey Supreme Court, is no.