Long NJ Traffic Stops: Is There a Time Limit Before Arrest?

Earlier this week, the NJ Appellate Division stated there is no clear rule about how long police can question you on the side of the road before they “arrest” you. Temporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a seizure of persons within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment of the United States and the New Jersey Constitutions.

Any automobile stop, however brief, must satisfy the Fourth Amendments’ basic requirement of reasonableness. This requirement may be met by showing that “the police had probable cause to believe that a traffic violation had occurred.

When the officer’s stop is justified at the beginning, the question becomes whether the continuing investigation is reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the automobile stop in the first place. At a traffic stop, an officer may seek a driver’s license, as well as proof of ownership and insurance. The officer may also ask routine questions of the vehicle’s occupants, such as where they are going and coming from, and for what purpose.

If an automobile stop lasts no longer than necessary to complete the investigation, this automobile stop can amount to an illegal arrest, if the stop is more than minimally intrusive. Factors to be weighed in determining whether a legal automobile stop turns in to an illegal automobile stop in New Jersey are: (i) whether there was delay unnecessary to the legitimate investigation, (ii) the degree to which the police conduct engenders fear or humiliation, and (iii) whether the suspect was isolated, handcuffed, or confined.

NJ Courts say that there is no hard-and-fast rule defining the reasonable length of a highway detention to investigate suspicious circumstances. Common sense and ordinary human experience must govern over rigid criteria.

In this case, the detention from the stop until the first arrest spanned some twenty-six minutes. The car was initially pulled over because it did not have an inspection sticker. The police officer individually questioned each of the car’s occupants. One of the occupants admitted to smoking marijuana. The police did not handcuff the occupants or “yelled” at them. Therefore, the NJ Appellate Division ruled that the traffic stop was initially legal and did not turn into an illegal stop.