Updated October 15, 2018
As most people know, the police generally need a warrant if they want to perform a search. However, police often do not need a warrant if they pull over a car, assuming that they have a reason to pull the car over. Once the vehicle is pulled over, police may perform a search without a warrant under the “automobile exception.”
Under the automobile exception, even where a defendant is not under arrest or where an arrested defendant has been secured, there may be justification to search a vehicle. Under federal constitutional law, a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is permissible so long as the vehicle is readily mobile and there is probable cause to believe it contains evidence of criminality. The purposes of the exception are police safety and the preservation of evidence. The underlying rationales are the ready mobility of the vehicle, the inherent potential for loss of evidence before a warrant is obtained, and the decreased expectation of privacy in motor vehicles, which are subject to extensive government regulation. In effect, under the federal standard, exigency is automatic. In New Jersey, however, the warrantless search of an automobile is permissible where (1) the stop is unexpected, i.e., unforeseen and spontaneous; (2) the police have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime; and (3) exigent circumstances exist under which it is impracticable to obtain a warrant. Exigency must be determined on a case-by-case basis. How the facts of the case bear on the issues of officer safety and the preservation of evidence is the fundamental inquiry. No one factor is dispositive; courts must consider the totality of the circumstances. Legitimate considerations include, for example, the time of day, location of the stop, nature of the neighborhood, unfolding of the events establishing probable cause, ratio of officers to suspects, existence of confederates who know the car’s location and could remove it or its contents, whether the arrest was observed by passers by who could tamper with the car or evidence, whether it would be safe to leave the car unguarded and, if not, whether the delay that would be caused by obtaining a warrant would place the officers or evidence at risk. Exigent circumstances are present when officers do not have sufficient time to obtain any form of warrant.