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Legal Procedures in NJ Motor Vehicle Stops

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Many people have been pulled over by the police, usually for mundane reasons such as a broken taillight or speeding.  A valid traffic stop is one where the police have observed an infraction related to your vehicle.  Examples include broken headlights or tail lights, no license plate or expired plates, dark window tint, shattered windows, or visibly defective tires. They can also stop you when they have probable cause.  Examples include speeding, not using headlights, swerving, reckless driving, or other driving-related infractions.

The Supreme Court Standard For a Proper Vehicle Stop in NJ

In 1996, in the case of Whren v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that a traffic stop is acceptable as long as the officer involved can justify it with a traffic infraction committed by the driver. The officer’s actual motives for the visit are irrelevant. The Whren case began when Whren and a friend (Brown) were driving in what the police referred to as a “high crime area.”  Police, in an unmarked vehicle, observed Whren turn without signaling and heading rapidly down the road.  They pulled him over to see When holding a bag of crack cocaine.  Both men were arrested.  They moved to suppress the evidence because they felt the police used the traffic stop to stop them. After all, there was no indication that the men were involved in anything illegal or drug-related. The motion to suppress was denied, as was their appeal, and ultimately the Supreme Court decision affirmed nothing was wrong with the stop and subsequent arrest.

Regarding your 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Supreme Court has often ruled in favor of the police, granting them a wide scope regarding traffic stops and vehicle searches.  The Court has said that if a vehicle is stopped and searched legally, any unlawful items or proof of illegal activities can be used as evidence.

A Previous Case in Delaware V. Prouse

An officer in a marked car made a traffic stop in Mr. Prouse’s car.  There was marijuana on the vehicle floor in plain sight of the officer.  Prouse was arrested on drug charges.  The police officer testified that there was no great reason why he made the stop.  Mr. Prouse hadn’t committed any traffic infractions, nor had the officer observed any suspicious activity on the part of Mr. Prouse.  His only purpose for making the stop was to check Mr. Prouse’s driver’s license and to make sure he had car insurance.  Mr. Prouse presented a motion to suppress the evidence found, and it was granted.  The court commented that they do not lose their right to privacy simply because someone chooses to drive a car.

Reasonable Suspicion for a Traffic Stop in New Jersey

Based on the case mentioned above, for the police to detain a driver or passengers, they must have a reasonable suspicion that a traffic infraction has occurred. These range from a failure to yield, passing on the shoulder of the road, tailgating, or driving while texting.  The police do not have the authority to effect an arrest or conduct a search of the vehicle when the traffic violation is a minor one.

A Practical Example in State v. Pierce

Nicholas Grass was found speeding with two passengers in his car, Pierce, and Bernardo.  The police officer, Rette, made the traffic stop and verified that Grass was driving on a suspended license.  He then arrested Grass for driving while having a suspended license.  Pierce and Bernardo were ordered to exit the vehicle.  Officer Rette searched the car and found a metal container with a loaded gun.  He also found three jackets, and while checking the pockets’ contents, he came across a trace amount of cocaine wrapped in plastic wrap that belonged to Pierce.

At trial, Pierce submitted a motion to suppress, claiming the search was unrelated to the suspended license issue and therefore, was bogus. The Appellate Court ruled that Grass’ arrest for driving with a suspended license was legal and consequently opened the door to a search of the car and its contents.

Anonymous Calls Used to Justify Traffic Stops

Because anonymous calls to the authorities are sometimes based on the caller’s perception of what is happening rather than what is happening, there must be corroboration by the rules that a stop needs to be enacted.  For example, if a tip comes in that there is a reckless driver in a 1989 blue Mustang speeding through a convenience store parking lot, but when the police arrive, they find the Mustang. Still, there is no evidence that the driver has been reckless; they cannot investigate further.  If the tip comes from a 911 call regarding an intoxicated driver, there is an exception, and the police will seek out the car and make a stop.

Understanding the Community Caretaking Exception

Police may effectuate a traffic stop without observing a traffic infraction if there is a belief that help is needed.  An example is a couple screaming, arguing, and violently motioning with their hands while the car is in motion.  The driver isn’t speeding or driving erratically, but the situation is less than ideal and could become a hazard to the couple or the cars around them.

Examples of Reasons For a Motor Vehicle Stop in NJ

Motor vehicle violations include DWI, speeding, speeding in a school area, talking on the phone while driving, texting while driving, failing to yield to a stop sign or traffic light, having too many passengers in the car, driving at night without headlights, missing a bumper, tailgating, and passing over a double yellow line.  There are many more, but these are a few of the most common.

What to do if You are Charged after an Unlawful Stop in New Jersey

A criminal defense lawyer can protect your rights and perform the investigation needed to not only build a solid defense for you, but to challenge the legality of the stop itself.  The police are not allowed to stop you on a hunch or because they think you may commit a traffic violation or other crime. Your attorney can potentially argue that the traffic stop was unwarranted and have your case thrown out altogether.

What sets an exceptional attorney apart in obtaining justice for clients is a willingness to persevere until everything that can be done has been done. You deserve to have your rights protected, and hiring an experienced criminal defense lawyer who can do that for you is important if you have been charged with a crime or traffic violation in New Jersey.

Letting things like this go is never a good idea when you need a defense that works in Florham Park, Rockaway, Mount Olive, Harding, Boonton, Madison, and other towns in Morris County and across New Jersey. Contact 973-524-7238 or fill out the form to speak with a criminal attorney as soon as possible.

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