NJ Gun Case Car Door Opening Violates 4th Amendment Rights

Can Police Open the Door to my Car if I’m Driving with a Gun in New Jersey?

Is Opening a Vehicle Allowed to Search for a Weapon in NJ There are only certain scenarios in which an officer can open the door to a person’s car in New Jersey. In an Appellate Division gun case, State v. Gray, the judges deemed a police officer’s unannounced and unwarranted opening of the Appellant’s car door a search prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. Gray solidifies a defendant’s fundamental right to unwarranted, surprise, privacy invasions into their vehicle. Defendants seeking to suppress evidence that law enforcement obtained illegally, initiated after opening their vehicle doors, may now have further support for their motions to suppress. As such, a person charged with a gun crime based on an unjustified, unannounced car door opening may have sufficient reason to show that the state’s criminal evidence against them was obtained in violation of their rights and will not support a conviction.

The defendant in the trial court was convicted of second degree unlawful firearm possession and sentenced to seven years in prison after the trial court denied his motion to suppress the gun evidence as the fruit of an illegal search.  The facts underlying the charges involve a sting operation by the police to capture a stolen car ringleader. The police arranged a meeting with the suspect and an informant auto repair owner. The suspect drove to the meeting with the defendant in the defendant’s girlfriend’s car. The defendant was there to get his car back from the repair shop and was not part of the car theft ring investigation. With four unmarked police cars and seven officers ready to make an arrest, a scuffle occurred at the scene. The police broke up the fight and handcuffed the men, placing them in separate police cars except for the defendant. An officer put him in his girlfriend’s Toyota.

Before putting him in the car, the officer opened the Toyota door and placed the defendant inside the vehicle with the door open. The officer testified at the suppression hearing that he smelled burnt marijuana inside the car and asked for consent to search the vehicle. The defendant twice refused permission, but consented the third time after being coerced by threats. In the search, the officer found a backpack with a gun, which the defendant admitted was his. The police then charged him with second degree unlawful possession of a weapon and possession of a firearm for unlawful purposes.

The defendant appealed the denial of his suppression motion, claiming the officer’s opening the car door was a warrantless search and violated his constitutional rights. The Appellate Court agreed and remanded the case to the trial court to grant the suppression motion and dismiss the charges. While the trial court accepted the officer’s reason for placing the defendant in his car due to the cold weather, the Appellate Court did not find sufficient reason to violate the defendant’s rights against unlawful search and seizure.

Important Factors for Consideration before Police can Open a Vehicle Door in NJ

In Gray, the Appellate Court systematically disagreed with the trial court’s analogizing the case to prior cases with officers opening car doors due to exigent circumstances or other warrant exceptions. But the Gray court found no exigent circumstances that justified a warrantless search. The Appellate Court distinguished the facts of Gray and precedent: most critically, that the police did not legally stop the defendant on suspicion of a crime before the officer opened the car door to detain him.

Moreover, the officer’s safety was not in jeopardy to justify searching the vehicle for a gun. The police outnumbered the defendants, and all were in handcuffs. Thus, without probable cause or exigent circumstances, opening the door was an unlawful search. The Appellate Court further distinguished the cases that the trial court relied upon to show how the events differed from the appellant’s circumstances.

For one, the trial court relied on the plain smell doctrine, smelling the marijuana, from a prior case of State v. Judge (275 N.J. Super. 194 (App. Div. 1994). The law in New Jersey has substantially changed since marijuana legalization when it comes to vehicle searches based on the odor of marijuana. In fact, merely smelling burning or raw marijuana does not provide adequate reasonable suspicion for stopping a vehicle. In addition, the person must have been observably violating a traffic law in order to justify a motor vehicle stop, which may reveal a person driving under the influence of marijuana. In these circumstances, police can arrest the person and search the car.

The trial court also relied on State v. Woodson, 236 N.J. Super. 537 (App. Div. 1989), where the court stated the criteria for an officer’s opening a car door legitimately: consent, warning, and communication. The three factors require an officer to speak to the vehicle occupant and obtain their permission for a search after warning them of their intent to do so. The Woodson court specified that an officer’s surprise car door opening is equivalent to an unconstitutional search. In Gray, the officer did not communicate, warn, or obtain the defendant’s consent to open the car door.

Next, in State v. Conquest, 243 N.J. 528 (1990), the officers detained the defendants at a traffic stop. The driver came out of the car and approached the officer suspiciously with shaking hands. The officer then opened the car door and ordered the passenger out, which allowed the officer to see the illegal drugs in the car. The Conquest court justified the car door opening as a legal search given the circumstances: the suspicious driver and the officer’s potential harm, being outnumbered by the defendants at the stop. Also, the officer communicated orders to exit the vehicle while opening the door. No such threat or suspicious behavior preceded a search in Gray.

Finally, the Appellate Court in Gray relied upon a closer analogy of facts in State v. Cohen 73 N.J. 331 (1977). There, officers mistook the defendant in his vehicle for someone with an outstanding warrant. Then, they opened the defendant’s car door and smelled marijuana, which prompted a vehicle search and the discovery of drugs. The court ruled that the investigation was illegal since the officers had no probable cause to open the door.

Tracing the facts in all four cases, the Gray Appellate Court honed in on when opening a car door is justified by probable cause and when it is unconstitutional, outlining when law enforcement’s actions are invasive and illegal and when they are justified. In Gray, the gun was critical to the charges against the defendant. Without the gun evidence, the state’s case has no basis. The same may be true for more defendants charged after law enforcement opened their car doors without warning or reason. In fact, unlawfully obtained guns used as evidence against defendants facing gun charges is more common than you might think.

Did Police Unlawfully Open Your Car Door and Arrest You for a Gun in NJ?

Our New Jersey gun attorneys use motions to suppress illegal evidence to get weapons charges dismissed in courts throughout New Jersey, including in Middlesex County, Hudson County, Ocean County, Bergen County, and Union County. If you or a loved one faces charges for a firearm such as a shotgun, assault weapon, handgun, or airsoft gun, or another type of weapon such as a knife or silencer, consult with our talented NJ weapons lawyers about your arrest. When defending clients, we thoroughly investigate all of the evidence and the progression of events to determine whether the state’s unconstitutional behavior opens the door for seeking to suppress illegal evidence. If so, we may be able to prepare a suppression motion to challenge the validity of the evidence that the state plans to use against you. Contact us today for a free consultation at (201)-614-2474.