Newsbrief: NJ Supreme Court Just Says No to Vehicle Searches Where a Former Passenger Had Drugs 11/7/03

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The fact that someone who just left a car possessed drugs is not sufficient grounds for a warrantless search of the automobile, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Monday. In a unanimous decision upholding an appeals court ruling, the court threw out charges against Floyd McDonald, Jr. of Paterson, who was arrested after police searched his car subsequent to finding drugs on a man who had just left the vehicle.

McDonald was approached by police after they arrested his passenger, Larry Wilson of Paterson, with bags of marijuana. McDonald produced a valid driver's license and was not intoxicated, but police searched his car anyway and found 50 bags of crack cocaine. The trail judge concluded that police were justified in conducting a warrantless search.

The appeals court disagreed, and McDonald was freed from prison pending Monday's ruling. Now, the state Supreme Court has also agreed. "We reiterate that the warrantless search in this case is presumed invalid and that the government bore the burden of creating an evidentiary record to uphold its conduct," the court said in its 7-0 decision, written by Justice Peter Verniero. (Ironically, Verniero is the former New Jersey Attorney General who became embroiled in the state's racial profiling scandal in 2002 over alleged misstatements to the legislature.) "It is not enough to describe the quantity of drugs, their location on defendant's person, and defendant's proximity to the car," Verniero said. "The officers need to articulate more fully why those facts provided the threshold level of suspicion required to justify their search of the car itself."

See http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/opinions/supreme/a-49-02.pdf to read the ruling online.

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