What Justifies Impounding a Vehicle without a Warrant in NJ?
Countless automobile impoundments occur on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis in New Jersey, with many reasons that legally justify these seizures by the police. For instance, if a vehicle’s conditions or its parking location presents a public danger, it may be impounded. Also, if the automobile is unregistered, uninsured, or the current driver has a suspended or revoke licensed, these reasons apply to valid police impounding. Further, a driver who gets arrested for a DWI offense will certainly have their car towed. Other circumstances justifying a vehicle’s impoundment include if the car is blocking the flow of traffic because it is disabled, abandoned, or left unattended. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a vehicle may be impounded if it contains evidence of potential crime, a crime in progress, or a crime that already occurred.
State v. Washington
In the case of State v. Washington, there was probable cause to connect an automobile to crime. The police located the defendant’s car in his carport. Already, they had probable cause to connect the vehicle with a homicide. Before the seizure, the police investigation yielded the make, model, condition, registration information, and vehicle ownership by various avenues. They reviewed camera footage of a convenience store, Facebook photos, reports from the car dealer that sold the vehicle to the defendant, who reported accident damage to the car, and shell casings from a firearm. The defendant was a suspect in a drive-by shooting that led to the hospitalization and eventual death of the victim. The police investigation uncovered the details confirming the car’s identification and owner.
The detectives on the case went to the defendant’s apartment and located the car that matched the description, including an inoperable front headlight, the temporary license and registration information in the vehicle, and the make, model, and color of the car parked in the space belonging to the defendant’s apartment number. As a result, the police impounded the vehicle and sought a search warrant. Note, they impounded the vehicle in connection with criminal activity, one of the reasons explained above.
Two-Prong Test for Seizing an Automobile as Criminal Evidence
In the Washington case, the vehicle was confiscated based on a two-prong test for seizing an automobile as criminal evidence. The police were not in a restricted and private space, and the vehicle’s condition, registration tags, and temporary license that connected it to the homicide were in plain view.
Possible Issues when Impounding an Automobile without a Warrant
In some cases, an automobile’s impoundment is considered unlawful without a warrant. In his suppression motion, the defendant in Washington contended that the police impounding his vehicle without a warrant was illegal; therefore, the car and its contents are inadmissible evidence. The state alleged that the police lawfully confiscated the defendant’s vehicle without a warrant under the plain view exception. Ultimately, the Law Division judge ruled that the warrantless seizure of the car was improper because the plain view exception requires probable cause to arise spontaneously. Thus, the trial court ruled that the evidence produced by the search of the impounded vehicle with a search warrant, was the fruit of an illegal seizure.
At trial, the Law Division judge granted the defendant’s suppression motion, stating that the detectives did not suddenly discover the vehicle’s evidence of criminal activity, which would have justified a warrantless seizure. They knew the car was evidence and, thus, had probable cause well before impounding the vehicle. Given they had time to get a warrant to seize the car, the court ruled they should have. Thus, the trial court ruled that the evidence the police found by a legal search was tainted by the illegal seizure of the vehicle. The search warrant made the search after impoundment legal, but the judge called it fruit of an illegal seizure, and so, unlawful.
The state countered that the police seized the vehicle under the plain view exception to the search warrant requirement, and probable cause that arose from “spontaneous and unforeseeable circumstances” is only necessary to search a car on the spot when the probable cause of criminal activity exists. The Law Division judge agreed that the officers met the two-prong test outlined in the case law for seizing an automobile as criminal evidence. However, the Trial Court added a third prong by requiring spontaneous circumstances.
Automobile Searches & Seizures based on the Plain View Exception
In the case of State v. Washington, the Appellate Court issued a decision that the police may impound a vehicle without a warrant under the plain view exception, even when probable cause did not arise spontaneously. The Appellate Court ruled that the Law Division judge confused the plain view exception to search a vehicle with the plain view exception to impound one. The Appellate Court reversed the Law Division judge’s ruling granting the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
In reviewing the case law the trial court relied on, the Appellate Court first established that a plain view search is not an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. When incriminating evidence is in plain view, law enforcement does not have to invade anyone’s privacy to find it. The court then discussed the State vs. Cooke and State vs. Witt cases, which require the police to inadvertently come upon crime evidence for probable cause to conduct a warrantless search.
However, the Appellate Court determined that those cases are distinct from Washington. Those cases set forth the requirements of an on-the-scene warrantless search based on the automobile exception. The automobile exception typically involves a traffic stop where police find evidence of drugs or other illegal activity. The vehicle’s mobility jeopardizes the evidence while police get a warrant, so a warrantless search is permitted.
Finally, the Appellate Court distinguished a warrantless search under the automobile exception and a vehicle seizure under the plain view exception. Spontaneity and foreseeability are required for quick searches when police inadvertently come upon probable cause. Nevertheless, probable cause of criminal activity alone justifies impounding a car. Moreover, State vs. Gonzales 227 N.J. 77 (2016) dispensed with the need to accidentally discover crime evidence for a plain-view seizure. While the state cannot search a vehicle without a warrant, in the absence of spontaneity and foreseeability, they can seize a vehicle when they have probable cause for the seizure.
Searches Conducted after Vehicles are Impounded
Even if a vehicle has been impounded, police are not universally authorized to search the automobile and conduct an inventory of its contents. There are multiple reasons for this, one being that they may need to request a search warrant depending on the situation. For example, in the Washington case, police obtained a warrant to search the car after impounding it. Technically, Washington allows the police to circumvent the warrant requirement by impounding the vehicle and then getting a search warrant to search for evidence. However, probable cause is still required to impound a car, so the state’s evidence may still face challenges when probable cause is insufficient to justify an impound.
Given the nuances of legal and illegal searches and seizures, speaking with a criminal defense attorney about your particular case is crucial if the state has incriminating evidence from a warrantless search or seizure and intends to use it against you in court. At The Tormey Law Firm, our criminal lawyers stay up to date on the latest case law regarding searches and seizures, and we regularly use suppression motions to get evidence against our clients deemed inadmissible. We know when and how to file the appropriate motion to prevent using illegal evidence to convict you, as our attorneys have been doing this for years to get charges dismissed in Essex County, Passaic County, Hudson County, Bergen County, Union County, Middlesex County, and throughout New Jersey.
To discuss your criminal charges or a crime you have been allegedly connected to, call (201)-556-1570 or contact us online. A talented criminal defense attorney at our firm is available around the clock to provide you with a free consultation, handle your criminal charges, and protect your constitutional rights.