Cops May Open Door When Ordering MV Passenger to “GET OUT!” – State v. Mai

[06/10 – 11:23 am] On occasion, when a police officer opens the door of an occupied motor vehicle during the course of an investigation, the officer will notice and seize criminal evidence or contraband that was not previously visible. However, differing decisions by two Appellate Division panels left in doubt the legality of unannounced door openings by police officers during a motor vehicle stop.

This morning, in a case captioned State v. Mai, The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that when a police officer is justified in ordering a motor vehicle passenger to exit the vehicle, the officer may also open the passenger’s door. In New Jersey, police officers may order a passenger to exit a motor vehicle when the officer has a heightened awareness of danger that would warrant an objectively reasonable officer in securing the scene in a more effective manner by ordering the passenger to get out of the car. The Justices went on to hold that, “In the realm of defining reasonable searches and seizures, no meaningful or relevant difference exists between the grant of authority to order an occupant of a vehicle to exit the vehicle and the authority to open the door as part of issuing that lawful order. Plain logic demands that the principles that govern whether a passenger of a vehicle lawfully can be ordered out of the vehicle must apply with equal force to whether a police officer is entitled, as a corollary and reasonable safety measure, to open the door as part of issuing a proper order to exit.”

Download a copy of State v. Mai.

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