NJ Police Need Reasonable Suspicion to Search Vehicle Without Warrant

This was a warrantless automobile search case. In State v. Carty, the NJ Supreme Court held that a police officer could not ask for consent to search a lawfully stopped vehicle or its occupants unless the officer had a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that the occupants were engaged in criminal wrongdoing. In this case, the Court had to decide whether the principles of Carty extend to the occupants of a car disabled on the shoulder of a highway.

In the early morning hours of September 17, 2004, Trooper Sean O’Connor and Sergeant Ronald Klem were patrolling the New Jersey Turnpike in the area of Edison Township when they saw a disabled Lincoln Town Car on the side of the highway. Parked in front of it was a Honda Accord. At the scene, Anthony Graham and Marcellius Love were under the Lincoln attempting to reattach the gas tank. Michelle Elders and Tasha Jones were sitting on the guardrail, and Christopher Leach and Ronald Stanley were sleeping in the Honda.

As the troopers pulled up behind the Lincoln, they activated their video camera and audio equipment. Although Love signaled that everything was “okay”, the troopers approached the car. Concerned that “something wasn’t right”, Klem and O’Connor began asking questions. On the basis of the nervousness of some of the parties, the absence of a registered owner, and the suspicion aroused by the gas tank falling off the car, Klem gave O’Connor permission to request a consent search of the Lincoln. O’Connor asked Leach for his consent. After saying he would consent, Leach initially balked at giving written authorization. Approximately an hour-and-a-half after the troopers had stopped at the scene, Leach signed the consent form. O’Connor found cocaine and marijuana under the hood. All six persons were arrested. Thereafter, the troopers found what they believed to be crack cocaine on Elders. Stanley was carrying $8,000 in cash and Leach $3,000.

The six defendants were charged with first-degree conspiracy, first-degree possession of drugs with intent to distribute, and other lesser drug charges. Defendants moved to suppress the evidence seized by the troopers. The matter was heard by Superior Court Judge Frederick DeVesa. He concluded that State v. Carty applies to situations involving disabled vehicles and that based on the videotape and the testimony of the two troopers (the defendants did not testify at the hearing), the seized drugs and money were the product of an unconstitutional, warrantless search. He suppressed the evidence.

The State’s motion for leave to appeal to the Appellate Division was granted. Although that court agreed with Judge DeVesa that Carty applies to disabled vehicles, it concluded that in this case it owed “no special deference to [the trial court’s] factfinding” because the key evidence was the videotape and because there were no material factual disputes arising from the evidence. The Appellate Division reversed the suppression order, and the Supreme Court granted defendants’ motion for leave to appeal.

HELD: The “reasonable and articulable suspicion” standard of State v. Carty, 174 N.J. 351 (2002), which governs consent searches of cars that are validly stopped applies equally to disabled vehicles on the State’s roadways. In this case, the Court concludes that there was sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the trial judge’s findings that the troopers engaged in an unconstitutional investigatory detention and search.