Arrested at “The Hunt”?
What To Do Next

The Far Hills Steeplechase will take place this year on October 21, 2017. “The Hunt” as it is called has made a name for itself in the last few years due to the drunken debauchery that occurs at the yearly horserace. The event, which is intended as a horse race, has evolved into an exciting event to pre-game for many college and high school aged students. People come from all over New Jersey, and even out-of-state from New York and Pennsylvania to enjoy the event. While it is a fun event that many look forward to, some may not consider the after effects of their fun. Police seem to be cracking down on this event with arrest rates going up annually. In most recent years arrests have been made due to underage drinking, drug possession, disorderly conduct, public urination, simple assault, and DWIs. While the degree of severity of these cases may seem to range it is always in one’s best interest to seek legal counsel no matter the severity of the matter.

When a person is charged with an offense at the Far Hills race, the matter will be handled in Far Hills Municipal Court. A court date will be given on the summons or ticket to the person arrested. If you are arrested call the court and enter a plea of Not Guilty and then schedule your Court appearance for a date when a prosecutor is available to discuss your case.  We suggest hiring a lawyer to review the facts and police reports. If the matter is a disorderly persons charge, a Municipal Court Lawyer can try to resolve it to a plea to a township ordinance. Receiving an ordinance is not a criminal offense and can be expunged after two years. If the matter is a drug possession offense, the State must submit the drug to be tested at a State lab. If the lab results do not come back then a Municipal Court Lawyer will know what motions can be filed to obtain a dismissal. Also public urination is not the best charge to have on one’s history. Sometimes that charge can be resolved to a different charge with less embarrassment associated with the original charge.

The Far Hills Steeplechase is an important event on many college students’ social calendars. However, if you are arrested it is advisable to retain a criminal defense attorney who is familiar with the area. The Law Offices of Eric B. Morrell frequently represents college-aged students and are familiar with the issues they face throughout their college experience. Our legal staff is in attendance every year and is very familiar with the event. While it may be tempting to simply plead to the original charges, an attorney with expertise in New Jersey criminal law specifically in Somerset County and Far Hills Borough, may be able to get the charges dismissed or mitigated.  The Law Offices of Eric B. Morrell have handled these matters before and have achieved great results for people who have overly indulged at “The Hunt.”

New Jersey Law Requiring Enforcement Agencies to Update Their Social
Media Accounts Regarding Acquittals or Dismissals

Governor Chris Christie signed a New Jersey bill requiring the Attorney General and the county’s prosecutor’s office to remove information or update public statements from the internet after the acquittal of a prosecuted individual. The new law known as A1945, will take effect on September 1st, 2017. Press releases from the Office of the Attorney General website must be updated to state the charges against a particular individual have been dropped, or the information posted must be removed all together. Information concerning the indictments and prosecutions of individuals who were later acquitted or had charges dismissed must be removed from each county’s respective website. The Attorney General must also inform the public that the indicted individual was acquitted of the charges or that the charges were dismissed.

The Attorney General is also responsible for providing a certification letter to each individual acquitted of a crime, or in which charges were dismissed. Sponsors of the bill are working in favor of cleaning up the online reputations of individuals found not guilty. Criminal charges are a matter of public record, which infiltrate the internet in today’s technological age. Although charges can be dismissed, information on the internet is available forever. This bill targets law enforcement agencies that run their own websites and social media pages, which include detailed information about charged individuals. Search engine results of a formerly charged individual’s name will produce link to government agencies’ pages. The act works to ensure that the information provides by these agencies on the internet is updated and accurate.

At this time the legislation does not include any information about how the law will be regulated. No penalty has been established in order to ensure compliance by law enforcement agencies. Without a monitoring system, there is no guarantee the act will be followed. The bill only targets government agencies, not privately owned media outlets such as NJ.com, The Patch, and other local news publications. This issue has been problematic for our clients in the past, as information has remained on the internet well after their exonerations. Our law office hopes that once this bill is put into practice, other media agencies will follow in removing information about a previously charged individual who has since been acquitted or had the charges dismissed.

New Jersey Bail Reform Act

Bail as we know it in New Jersey is going to change starting in January of 2017. The Pretrial Services Program, abbreviated PSP, aims to assure court appearance of a defendant, and on a larger scale, to limit the potential for obstruction of the criminal justice system in the state of New Jersey. PSP is a temporary detention of those committed to county jail. During the detention, the program prepares a risk assessment of the defendant, containing recommendations directing the conditions of the defendant’s release from jail. A computerized risk assessment tool will be used by police to determine whether the defendant is a low, moderate, or high risk to the community and the criminal justice system. A numerical score will be assigned to the defendant, indicating which of the three risk levels to which the defendant corresponds. As used in the decision for determining a bail amount currently, a suspect’s criminal record will also be considered in risk assessment. The decision for pretrial release is required to be made no later than 48 hours after the defendant is committed to jail.

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Drug Evaluation & Classification Programs

“The drug recognition expert procedure is a systematic and standardized method of examining a suspect to determine: 1) Whether the suspect is impaired; and if so, 2) Whether the impairment related to drugs or medical condition; and if drugs, 3) The category or combination of categories of drugs that are the likely cause of impairment” (IV-3, HS 172A R01/10). “It is a systematic process because it is based on a complete set of observable signs and symptoms that are known to be reliable indicators of drug impairment. A Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) never reaches a conclusion based on any one element of the evaluation, but instead on the totality of facts that emerge” (IV-3, HS 172A R01/10). “The evaluation is standardized because DRE officers perform it the same way every time. Continue reading

Sexual Assault Survivor Protection Act (SASPA)

Unfortunately college campuses have a high rate of sexual assault and crime apparent within the college culture, but with the passing of a new law, victims now have a much more accessible way of seeking protection against their sexual offender.

Here at the law office, Eric Morrell has knowledge of the new law regarding nonconsensual sexual assault and the changes that it brings to the legal system. If you are a victim of nonconsensual sexual contact, sexual penetration, lewdness, or any attempt at such conduct this office will work vigorously to help you obtain the safety that a protective order could provide. Likewise, if you have a protective order that is filed against you, we will help defend you in the matter. Continue reading

Stops and Searches in New Jersey

How a Change in the Law Affects You

Can a Police Officer Search Your Car without a Warrant?

Many of our clients are approaching us with questions about a change in the law in regard to motor vehicle searches. Apparently, many police officers are informing our clients that they are now allowed to search a car without a warrant at the scene of a stop. They are also relaying this to their family and friends at the police stations.

This information is true, and in fact has been the law in the United States since 1925! The United States Supreme Court has ruled that police may search a readily mobile vehicle if they have probable cause to believe that criminal evidence or contraband is inside.
This rule of law has been slightly modified by the New Jersey Supreme Court due to a controversial court ruling that was published on September 24, 2015.

In State v. Witt 223 NJ 409 (2015), the New Jersey Supreme Court, changed the automobile search procedures for police that had been in effect in our state since 2000. Under the old law, State v Pena-Flores 198 NJ 16 (2009) police needed to demonstrate both probable cause and exigent circumstances before they were allowed to search a motor vehicle without a warrant. The Witt decision changes all that by eliminating the requirement of exigent circumstances for the police.

What prompted a change in the automobile search law?

William Witt was a New Jersey driver who was stopped by Carneys Point Township Police Officer Joseph Racite on December 19, 2012, at 2:00 a.m. for driving with his high beams on, and not dimming his lights as other vehicles approached.

Witt appeared to be intoxicated when Officer Racite pulled him over, was asked to exit his vehicle, and ended up failing the required field sobriety tests. After Witt was arrested, and placed into the back of the patrol car, Officer Racite went to search Witt’s car.

Officer Racite searched Witt’s vehicle in order to find intoxicants and, instead, found a handgun in the center console.

This led to William Witt being charged with second-degree unlawful possession of a firearm, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b), and second-degree possession of a weapon by a convicted person, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7(b)

Witt’s defense attorney then moved to suppress the gun as evidence because the officer’s search had violated the New Jersey Constitution. The trial court then reviewed the motion and suppressed the evidence, stating that there were no “exigent circumstances”.

The State’s Reaction

In response to the trial court’s decision, the State filed an appeal to the Appellate Court, seeking to overturn the initial ruling.

However, once the Appellate Court reviewed the case, the panel decided that the suppression of the evidence was justified, although on other grounds.

In 2014, the State appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court, asking the justices to modify the standards set forth in prior established law by removing the exigency requirement for automobile searches by the police.

Why did the Court change the law?

Writing for the Court, Justice Albin pointed out during William Witt’s motion to suppress, that the defense did not argue that the stop itself was unlawful. Rather, their sole challenge was to the search of the Witt’s vehicle. Justice Albin also noted that federal law allows for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle as long as there is probable cause.

The Court noted that the use of telephonic search warrants by the police in automobile searches had proven to be impractical. The available data indicated that the average time for the police to secure a telephonic search warrant had been 59 minutes. Other anecdotal evidence indicated that, on occasion, it would take 1.5 – 2 hours to acquire a warrant. As a result of these time delays, police simply stopped requesting search warrants and began to seek consent from motorists to search their vehicles. In fact, consent requests by police agencies rose from an average of 300 a year to 2,500 per year.

The Court also noted that the requirement for exigent circumstances as part of the New Jersey version of the automobile exception had proven to be confusing to the police and unnecessary to protect the public. This consideration, along with the need to avoid inconvenience to the public and danger for the police during motor vehicle stops persuaded the Justices to change New Jersey law to conform to the federal standard. As a result, for cases on or after September 24, 2015, police officers may search readily mobile vehicles when they have probable cause to believe that contraband or criminal evidence is hidden within the vehicle. The Court also required that, unlike the federal standard, the probable cause determination by the police must develop spontaneously and be unforeseen.

Community Thoughts

Now that we understand the Court’s reasoning in changing the search warrant standards, our offices wanted to get the perspectives of those who are directly involved with process.

We reached out to a New Jersey Police Officer to obtain his opinion on the new changes.

“State v. Witt is a case that brings NJ more in line with the federal standard,” said the officer. “In New Jersey, we tend to offer broader protections to our citizens than what is afforded by the federal government.”

We then asked the officer if removing exigency from warrant requirements infringes on citizen’s rights.

“That’s tough to say. Upon first thought, the easy answer would be yes. If you really look into what really takes place, I would say no. When NJ followed the Pena-Flores standard, there were factors that would be considered on a case by case basis to determine whether exigency, in fact, existed.”

He substantiated his statement by explaining that “this type of ruling clogged the courts with suppression hearings and would deprive a person of their motor vehicle while the warrant process plays out. In cases when an officer would decide to exercise an abundance of caution by not searching a vehicle, even if exigency may have existed, the process would deprive that citizen of more rights than having the officer search that vehicle for contraband. If probable cause exists, chances are at the end of the day, a judge will sign a warrant and that vehicle will be searched.”

For another perspective, our offices reached out to the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender for a comment on the recent decision.

“This case represents a major setback to civil liberties in the State of New Jersey, where we have historically had more protection of motorists’ rights than other states. With the Witt decision, the protections no longer exist, and police will be able to routinely conduct warrantless searches of vehicles,” replied the Deputy Public Defender of Middlesex County.

The Deputy said that “even if it means that there are more applications for search warrants, it is always a better course to have a judge rather an officer in the field make the determination of what constitutes probable cause.”

Our Thoughts

So how does this change affect NJ drivers, as well as their family and friends?

The fact remains that the current law, under the ruling decided upon in State v. Witt, allows a police officer to search a motor vehicle as long as there is cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of an offense and the circumstances giving rise to probable cause are unforeseeable and spontaneous.

The case decision now reverts back to State v. Alston, which indicates that for a search for a car to occur without a warrant the car must be moveable. In some cases, a search might be unlawful if the vehicle is out of gas, damaged in an accident and is not able to be moved, or is impounded because of a drunk driving matter. As such, these searches would be suppressible if a warrant is not obtained.

Also, another key point is that the search has to be performed on the roadside. If a warrant is not obtained for a non-road side search of a car, evidence could be suppressed. This is a reversal of a case, State v. Martin87 N.J. 561 (1981).

We continue to advise New Jersey drivers to not have any contraband on their persons and/or in their vehicle, and to always obey all traffic, municipal, and state laws!

Whenever you are pulled over by a police officer, always remember to be polite and respectful. Also, make sure that all equipment on your vehicle is functional. Any non-compliance at a stop could potentially lead to additional traffic offenses and/or criminal charges.

If you find yourself subject to an arrest and an automobile search, and require legal representation, we suggest that you contact a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney who is well versed in current New Jersey case law.