A Police Search of a Car’s Trunks and Other Obscure Areas Can be a Violation of a Person’s Rights in New Jersey

Under the New Jersey Supreme Court decision, State v. Witt  223 NJ 409 (2015), if a police officer detects the odor of marijuana, he is legally able to search the driver’s vehicle without a warrant. Since there were limited boundaries or guidelines set in place, police officers were using State v. Witt to search throughout motor vehicles, including the trunk. Recently, an Appellate Division case limited the parameters of warrantless searches conducted in motor vehicles. The case, State v. Maurice Houston, Docket No. A-0023-17T3 (2017), restricted the discretion police officers have in conducting motor vehicle searches, as maintained in State v. Witt, the seminal serach of a motor vehicle case in New Jersey. In State v. Houston, the Court held that the search exceeded parameters and became intrusive once the officers started searching in obscure places in the defendant’s motor vehicle.

While on patrol, New Jersey State Police (NJSP) Detective Joseph Palach and Trooper Frederick Peters spotted the defendant, Maurice Houston, making a turn without signaling, and upon further inspection the officers that the car had tinted windows. Once pulled over, the officers also noted that Houston was also not wearing a seatbelt and Palace and Peters smelled burnt marijuana emitting from inside the car. The police officers then removed the defendant from the car, placing him under arrest, and began to search his person. They found five (5) Endocet pills and a large sum of money. Officer Palach next began to search the vehicle, beginning with the passenger area as more officers arrived. The police offers then proceeded to search a backpack that was located on the passenger side, which contained contraband. The police officers also removed a panel above the wheel well and the air vents, and found contraband in both places.

Under State v. Witt, the State argued that because the officers smelled marijuana, they had probable cause to believe that Houston’s car contained more contraband. They maintained that the search was valid. The search was executed lawfully under State v. Witt, but then the Court held it proceeded to violate the client’s privacy. The search could go no further because the police officers had no specific probable cause supported by a reasonable belief that more contraband could be found in specific places searched. Due to the extent at which the search was conducted, the defendant argued that police officers conducted a search beyond the scope of a warrantless search. The officers began to search in more obscure places, which then caused them to exceed the permissible scope of State v. Witt. The police officers searched in places such as above the rear wheel well, and the space behind the air vents while the defendant was handcuffed. No case cited by the State of New Jersey authorizes police officers to extend the discretion they were allowed under State v. Witt. The evidence found in these spots was then suppressed.

In conclusion, the new case State v. Houston places serious boundaries on searches conducted under State v. Witt. State v. Houston limits police officers’ searches of motor vehicles without a warrant. The Court held that the search conducted in State v. Houston, “transcended all bounds of reasonableness.” As such, if your trunk or other obscure areas of your car are performed as a result of a warrantless or non-consensual search, and the police officers find contraband in that area, there is a possibility that your rights were violated.