On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For Reversal and Remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, Garibaldi, O'Hern and Stein. Opposed -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by O'Hern, J.
This appeal concerns the scope of the "automobile exception" to the warrant requirement of the fourth amendment. The "automobile exception"
permits police to stop and search a moving or readily movable vehicle when there is probable cause to believe the vehicle contains criminally related objects. The rationale for this exception is grounded in the exigent circumstances created by the inherent mobility of vehicles and the somewhat lessened expectation of privacy in one's vehicle.
[ State v. Patino, 83 N.J. 1, 9, 414 A.2d 1327 (1980).]
The specific issue presented is whether the exigency ordinarily created by the mobility of the automobile is dissipated when the vehicle containing the contraband is found parked on a public street. We hold that when, without advance planning, police encounter a parked car, have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains criminal contraband such as drugs, and have articulable reasons to believe that the evidence may otherwise
be lost or destroyed, they may seize and search the vehicle for the contraband without the necessity of a warrant.
On the evening of December 27, 1988, police officers were patrolling a neighborhood in Linden known as a high narcotics traffic area. They observed defendant, sitting on the front porch of an apartment building, engaged in what they suspected was a drug transaction. When they shined their light onto the porch, defendant attempted to flee, throwing to the ground a clear vial that contained a substance that looked like cocaine. The officers arrested defendant and drove him to the police station. Within minutes of the arrest, an informant told the police that drugs had been stashed in defendant's car, which was parked within a block of the arrest site, and that other people knew about the arrest and would attempt to remove the drugs from the car. The police proceeded immediately to the area indicated by the informant and found a car that matched the informant's description. After confirming that the car belonged to defendant, police entered the unlocked car, searched it, and found tinfoil packets of cocaine underneath the dashboard.
A grand jury indicted defendant for possession of a controlled dangerous substance (cocaine), contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10(a)(1). The Law Division granted defendant's motion to suppress the drugs found in the car. Although the existence of probable cause to believe the car contained drugs was not disputed, the Law Division held that the police should have guarded defendant's car until they obtained a warrant to search the car. The Appellate Division affirmed the decision and reasoning of the Law Division. We granted the State's motion for leave to appeal and denied its motion for summary reversal. We now reverse the contrary judgment below and remand the matter for further proceedings.
We begin by noting the obvious. "The word 'automobile' is not a talisman in whose presence the Fourth Amendment fades away and disappears." Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 461, 91 S. Ct. 2022, 2035, 29 L. Ed. 2d 564, 580 (1971). No case has established the proposition that law-enforcement officers in "every conceivable circumstance" may dispense with the warrant requirement in the context of an automobile search. Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 50, 90 S. Ct. 1975, 1980, 26 L. Ed. 2d 419, 428 (1970). Rather, the expression "automobile exception" is a shorthand way of stating the circumstances ...