Supremes Totally Revamp Auto Exception Under NJ Constitution

From today’s opinion in State v. Witt, released moments ago:

“The exigent-circumstances standard set forth in Pena-Flores is unsound in principle and unworkable in practice. Citing Article I, Paragraph 7 of New Jersey’s State Constitution, the Court returns to the standard articulated in State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211 (1981), for warrantless searches of automobiles based on probable cause: The automobile exception authorizes the warrantless search of an automobile only when the police have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of an offense and the circumstances giving rise to probable cause are unforeseeable and spontaneous.”

The Supreme Court ducked the mistake of law issue, so as a result, New Jersey law and federal law on this issue are different. The conflict between state & federal law on this is plain: NJ law allows “mistake of law” defenses, federal law does not. See State v. Puzio, 379 NJ Super. 378 (App. Div. 2005) and Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530 (2014).

Two of the biggest takeaways from today’s decision:
1) the search must take place at the scene of the stop
2) the Court’s ruling is prospective

For a PDF copy of today’s opinion, click here.

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