Auto Searches Incident to Arrest Banned in N.J. – State v. Eckel

Unless it is reversed at some point in the future by the New Jersey Supreme Court, today’s Appellate Division decision in State v. Eckel will surely be regarded as a landmark decision in New Jersey Arrest, Search and Seizure jurisprudence.

The defendant in Eckel was a passenger in a motor vehicle that had been stopped by the police. At the time of the stop, the police were aware of active municipal court bench warrants for the defendant. Accordingly, the police effected his arrest and secured him in the rear of a police vehicle. The vehicle’s driver asked for permission to retrieve some of the defendant’s clothing from the interior of the vehicle. The police declined to let her do this for reasons of officer safety. Rather, the police went to fetch the requested clothing inside the vehicle and, in so doing, discovered distribution level amounts of CDS.

Although the defendant raised challenges to the legality of this search on the basis of several exceptions to the warrant requirement, the State took the position that it would only defend the search of the vehicle on the basis of the search having been undertaken as incident to a lawful arrest, as authorized under New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981).

The Appellate Division opinion in Eckel holds that this exception to the warrant requirement no longer applies in New Jersey based upon the enhanced protections afforded people in New Jersey under our State Constitution under Article I, paragraph 7.

The bright line rule in Belton permits police to search the interior compartment of a motor vehicle for weapons, evidence, contraband or fruits and instumentalities of crime whenever the police effect the lawful arrest of an occupant of the vehicle. The New Jersey Supreme Court had previously restricted the scope of Belton in our State by removing arrests for traffic offenses as a justification for this type of search. (See State v. Pierce, 136 N.J. 184 (1994)). Today’s decision eliminates this exception to the warrant requirement entirely in New Jersey.

The Court”s decision in Eckel is based upon the simple fact that a person who is in custody in the back of a police car is in no position to reach for a weapon or attempt to destroy evidence hidden within the interior of the vehicle from which he has been removed. This fact, coupled with a significant amount of criticism of the rule in Belton over the years persuaded the Court that Belton does not represent the law of New Jersey under the greater protections afforded by the State Constitution.

Muni-mail Analysis and Commentary:

1. The Court in Eckel did not discuss whether this decision is to be given retroactive effect.

2. Police agencies should note that this opinion does nothing to alter existing N.J. law that permits the search of a motor vehicle based upon other exceptions to the warrant requirement such as the automobile exception (Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925); State v. Cook, 163 N.J. 657 (2000)), consent (State v. Carty, 170 N.J. 632 (2002)), protective searches (State v. Lund, 119 N.J. 35 (1990)), community caretaking (State v. Goetaski, 209 N.J. Super. 362 (App. Div. 1986)), inventory searches (South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364 (1976)) and the like.

3. Given the importance of this decision, there is a good chance that the Supreme Court will certify an appeal by the State. There was no dissent in the Appellate Division, thus no appeal as of right available.

4. The State’s failure to defend the search in this case on the basis of other exceptions to the warrant requirement proved to be a fatal error. For example, this search might well have justified under New Jersey law that permits police to retrieve personal property and give it to defendants prior to the towing of an impounded motor vehicle. See State v. Mangold, 82 N.J. 575 (1980).

Download a copy of State v. Eckel

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