It is well settled under the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions that people have a right to privacy and not be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures. Law enforcement must have probable cause to conduct a search and prove that to a judge in order to get a search warrant.
One exception to the warrant requirement is if there are "exigent circumstances." In other words, the police do not have enough time to get a warrant before the evidence may be destroyed or disappear.
One example that has long been upheld is with a motor vehicle stop. The police pull you over for something and suspect that the law is being violated. However, they can't get a judge to sign a warrant from the side of the road.
But what happens if your car is impounded, as often happens with drunk driving arrests? Well, according to the NJ Supreme Court in a ruling issued on June 14, 2012, they can still search it without a warrant. The exigent circumstances continue through the time the vehicle arrives at the police station.
The court ruled that the police acted reasonably when they searched a van that they had towed to the police station, stating that the exigent circumstances the police confronted while on the street justified the removal of the vehicle to the police impound. Moreover, the exigency continued even though the vehicle was safely in police custody.
The one thing to bear in mind, however, is that the court's ruling was very fact specific, meaning that the court may not rule the same way under other circumstances. So if you have been stopped for a motor vehicle violation, had your car impounded and then searched, call my office at 856-432-4113 or contact me through this site to schedule an appointment to discuss your case.