Reasonable Suspicion Required for Search of Disabled Cars – State v. Elders

In this morning’s opinion in State v. Elders, the New Jersey Supreme Court expanded its previous ruling in State v. Carty, 170 N.J. 632 (2002) to include disabled vehicles as well as those that are fully operational. Five years ago in Carty, the Justices ruled that a request by the police for the consent search of a motor vehicle must be supported by a reasonable and articuable suspicion that contraband or criminal evidence will be found therein. Today’s holding in Elders makes it clear that this require of a reasonable and articuable suspicion also applies to disabled vehicles on the roadway.

In the Elders ruling Supreme Court also rejected the Appellate Division’s fact-finding based upon the panel’s view of a video tape recording of the event on the turnpike. Simply put, the Justices found that it was improper for the Appellate Division to substitute its own judgment on the facts for that of the motion judge, notwithstanding the video. The Supreme Court reaffirmed that the factual findings of the motion judge are entitled to great deference and should not be disturbed unless they are clearly wrong and so wide of the mark as to constitute an injustice.

Finally, the Supreme Court agreed with the motion judge’s assessment that the transaction between the police and the defendants quickly escalated from a purported community caretaking event to an investigative detention. In reality, according to the motion judge, the police did little or nothing to support the argument that their purpose for stopping at the scene where the defendant’s disabled vehicle had come to rest was related to any desire to provide them aid or assistance. Instead, the police quickly began questioning the defendant and the other passengers in an effort to either confirm or dispel their suspicions of criminal activities. Such actions are wholly inconsistent with community caretaking activities by the police which should be completely divorced from gathering evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Beyond that, the Justices agreed that the consent that the police obtained for the search was not based upon a reasonable suspicion but, at best, a hunch.

Download a copy of State v. Elders.

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