N.J. Supreme Court upholds privacy rights in warrantless police searches of cars

By: - March 9, 2023 7:00 am

Justice Douglas Fasciale cited New Jersey’s constitution as a reason for affirming lower court rulings that suppressed evidence found in a warrantless car search in 2021 in Ocean County. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Police stopping motorists to investigate crimes cannot search their cars without a warrant unless the circumstances that sparked their suspicion were “unforeseeable and spontaneous,” the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

Justice Douglas Fasciale cited New Jersey’s constitution, which provides greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than the Fourth Amendment, as a reason for affirming lower court rulings that suppressed evidence found in a warrantless car search in 2021 in Ocean County.

He also cited precedential case law that allows police to forego a warrant only in “unforeseeable and spontaneous” circumstances.

The case stemmed from the arrest of Kyle A. Smart, who Toms River police charged with various crimes after finding drugs, weapons, and ammunition in his car.

Officers began surveilling Smart at a condominium complex one afternoon in August 2021, two months after a resident reported drug activity and a month after an informant told officers a drug dealer known as “Killer” drove a 2017 GMC Terrain around there, according to the ruling. Officer Louis Taranto had identified Smart, who had a prior drug record that included the “Killer” nickname, as a suspect through criminal records, the ruling noted.

Nearly an hour and a half after Taranto first spotted the GMC, officers pulled it over, according to the ruling. Smart had no drugs on him and refused officers’ request to search the car.

But officers called in a police canine who sniffed outside the car and signaled the presence of drugs, according to the ruling.

That established probable cause — but the circumstances leading to probable cause were not “unforeseeable or spontaneous,” Fasciale wrote. The officers suspected criminal activity from the start and should have gotten a warrant, he added.

“The fact that the canine sniff is what culminated in probable cause does not eviscerate the steps that led to the sniff,” he wrote. “The sniff did not exist in a vacuum, but rather served to confirm and provide evidentiary support for the investigators’ suspicions. The canine sniff was just another step in a multi-step effort to gain access to the vehicle to search for the suspected drugs.”

After police searched his car without his consent or a warrant, they found drugs and weapons that Smart admitted belonged to him, according to the ruling. But a trial judge declared the evidence inadmissible because officers failed to get a search warrant, and a three-judge appellate panel upheld that decision last June.

In affirming those rulings, Fasciale wrote: “The investigative stop was deliberate, orchestrated, and wholly connected with the reason for the subsequent seizure of the evidence … A warrant was required before searching the GMC.”

Fasciale noted, though, that such debates are “fact-sensitive” and should be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Attorney Bruce S. Rosen of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden argued before the court on behalf of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey.

He noted federal law is more expansive in allowing warrantless car searches, so he celebrated Wednesday’s ruling as a victory for privacy rights and against police overreach.

“This is a reaffirmation that the New Jersey Constitution protects individual rights and privacy,” Rosen said. “Prosecutors have been trying to return the state to the federal standard for years. But without really blinking, the Supreme Court stood by its view of how the state constitution applies to criminal law. In that respect, it’s a very important decision.”

Attorney Clifford P. Yannone, who represented Smart, went to court Wednesday afternoon to request his release from prison, and a judge agreed to free him. He’s been in prison on this case for over a year and a half, Yannone said.

The ruling serves as a resounding reminder to police to get a warrant, Yannone said.

“I do certainly anticipate that the state will be dismissing these charges,” he said. “This is obviously a great victory for the privacy rights of motorists in the state of New Jersey.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.