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Home Page > Crime > How the Criminal System Works

New Jersey Supreme Court Bans Routine Automobile Consent Searches


Under the United States and New Jersey Constitutions, a police officer cannot search or arrest you without a good reason. A police officer has a good reason to stop your car and conduct an investigation if the police officer believes you are breaking a motor vehicle law. But a police officer cannot stop a car because of the driver’s race and base an investigation on the driver’s race while pretending that the reason for the stop was breaking a motor vehicle law. This illegal practice is called “racial profiling.”

The New Jersey State Police’s use of racial profiling to decide which cars to stop has been the subject of court cases and hearings by the state legislature. People testified that, after cars were stopped, the state police frequently asked the driver to consent (agree) to a search. The New Jersey Supreme Court decided in a case named State v. Carty that a police officer cannot stop you for breaking a motor vehicle law and then ask you to agree to a search unless the police officer believes that you or your passenger are engaged in criminal activity.

In Carty, a state police officer stopped a car for speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike. The driver had a valid driver’s license and was legally driving the car, but he did not have the documents with him to prove this. The driver signed a form agreeing to a search of the vehicle. The form stated that the driver knew he could refuse to agree. The state trooper then frisked the driver and passenger and found that the passenger was carrying cocaine. The trial court decided that the cocaine could be used as evidence against the passenger because the driver had agreed to the search. A jury found the passenger guilty of drug possession.

A police officer can legally search a person or a person’s property without a warrant if the person consents (agrees) to be searched. The New Jersey Supreme Court decided that the person’s agreement was not enough to make the search lawful when a person was stopped for a motor vehicle violation. They pointed out that people might feel that they have to agree to the police officer’s request even if they are told they don’t have to. They also pointed out that the police had abused the practice because most people who had agreed to a search were innocent, which means that they were “embarrassed” and “inconvenienced” for no good reason. Therefore, they decided that once a police officer has finished investigating the motor vehicle violation, a police officer must have a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that the driver or passenger is or has been involved in criminal activity before they ask for agreement to search the car. They also said that a police officer could not base the “suspicion” just on the driver’s or passenger’s “nervousness.” In order to conduct a “pat down” search of your clothing, a police officer must have reason to believe that you are “armed and dangerous” or that a crime has been or is being committed.

Decision Applies to All Police Officers

Before the New Jersey Supreme Court decided Carty, the New Jersey State Police had already agreed not to automatically ask for consent to search cars. But the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision applies to all police officers. The Court’s decision also creates a right under the New Jersey Constitution.

This information last reviewed 10/28/11


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