Arrest for DWI can provide p/c to search vehicle – State v. Irelan

This morning’s Appellate Division decision in State v. Irelan contains 3 important points. The facts involve a State police DWI stop. After the defendant was arrested and secured in the rear of the troop vehicle, a search of his vehicle revealed a firearm. The Court ruled as follows:

1. Notwithstanding that the defendant had been arrested only for a motor vehicle offense (DWI), under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, evidence of drunk driving can provide sufficient probable cause to support a search of a motor vehicle for evidence of recent consumption of alcoholic beverages. (e.g. partially consumed beer cans, etc.) Probable cause, coupled with exigent circumstances will support the automobile exception under the New Jersey Constitution.

2. When police arrest a defendant for drunk driving based upon probable cause, they may search his person incident to the arrest and the interior of his car if, under the totality of the circumstances, the vehicle is within his custody or control such that he could grab a weapon or interfere with evidence.

3. The Appellate Division, in dicta, suggests that drunk driving arrests are of sufficient seriousness and often involve the recovery of physical evidence. Thus, the Supreme Court probably meant to permit a search of a defendant’s vehicle as incident to his arrest in a drunk driving case. If true, this would represent a major change from the interpretation of State v. Pierce which generally forbids searches of motor vehicles as incident to an arrest for a motor vehicle offense. The dicta seem to note that State v. Pierce is limited to arrest for minor violations.

The Appellate Division decided this case based upon the automobile exception only and was thus able to duck the main issue in the case dealing with searches incident to arrest and State v. Pierce. Also, note the skimpy discussion of the recent decision by a different panel of the Appellate Division of State v. Eckel where motor vehicle searches incident to an arrest were banned in New Jersey.

Download a copy of State v. Irelan

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