In a 5-2 decision handed down on Thursday, the New Jersey Supreme Court rolled back requirements for warrantless vehicle searches, returning the state to the longstanding federal standard that requires only that an officer establish probable cause prior to a search or seizure.

Probable cause is legally defined as the existence of apparent facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime.

The issue usually arises during a lawful stop in which an officer discovers evidence in the course of a warrantless search of the interior or trunk of a vehicle.

The New Jersey requirements in place for the past six years had imposed an additional finding of either exigent circumstances or safety concerns before an officer could conduct a search of a motor vehicle without first obtaining a warrant.

New Jersey's additional requirement had been considered added protection for motorists, but the state Attorney General's Office argued that it was "unworkable" due to the difficulty of obtaining a warrant in the field, while the car stop was in progress.

The office said the decision strikes "an appropriate balance between protection of citizens' constitutional rights and the paramount need for public protection and officer safety."

The AG’s office also said the additional requirement had led to the “unintended negative consequence" of increasing police-induced car searches after officers pressured motorists to submit voluntarily rather than taking time to obtain a warrant absent exigent circumstances or safety concerns.

"The heavy reliance on consent searches is of great concern given the historical abuses associated with such searches and the potential for future abuses," wrote Justice Barry T. Albin in the majority opinion.

The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed supporting briefs in the case arguing that the return to the federal probable cause standard would deny motorists in New Jersey important protections against searches and seizures in the course of traffic stops.

A spokesperson for the ACLU said the state had "relied on self-fulfilling speculation of doom by arguing that it would be too difficult for officers to know when they needed to request a warrant."


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