On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 354 N.J. Super. 548 (2002).
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
In this appeal, the Court is asked whether the State has satisfied its burden of demonstrating the validity of a warrantless automobile search.
On February 30, 1999, at approximately 12:26 a.m., two officers in a marked police vehicle were patrolling the area of Union Avenue and Jasper Street in the City of Paterson. One of the officers observed a vehicle with a passenger suspected of having outstanding arrest warrants. The driver parked the vehicle on Jasper Street and the officers observed the defendant exit the vehicle. There was no indication that either of the occupants was aware of the marked police vehicle. Upon observing defendant and confirming the officer's belief that he was the person for whom the warrants had issued, the officer called to defendant. Defendant walked towards the patrol vehicle and the officers arrested him based on the arrest warrants. Defendant had his hands inside his jacket sleeves and, in order to handcuff him, the officers asked that he remove them. Upon removing his hands out of the sleeves, one at a time, the officers observed packets suspected of containing controlled dangerous substances drop to the ground. The packets were later determined to contain marijuana and cocaine.
After arresting defendant, placing him in the patrol vehicle, and retrieving the suspected drugs from the ground, the officers approached the driver. The driver produced valid driving credentials. While one of the officers questioned the driver, the other officer continued searching the grounds for any other drugs and also opened the unlocked passenger door of the vehicle. Inside, the officer found other narcotics, determined to be fifty bags of crack cocaine. The officer later acknowledged that the drugs in the vehicle were not in plain view. The driver was also arrested.
Defendant was charged with third-degree possession of cocaine, third-degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and third-degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute within 1000 feet of school property. At a subsequent suppression hearing, the trial court found that probable cause and exigent circumstances had existed to justify the warrantless search of the automobile. Defendant pled guilty to all charges, subject to his right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion. The trial court sentenced defendant to an extended term of siX years imprisonment, with a three-year period of parole ineligibility, and assessed the usual fines and penalties.
In a reported decision, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court, concluding that the officers lacked probable cause to conduct the warrantless search of the vehicle.
The Supreme Court granted the State's petition for certification.
HELD: The State has not overcome the presumption that its warrantless search of the automobile was invalid under the federal and State constitutions. The Appellate Division properly suppressed the fruits of the search.
1. Consistent with the State and federal constitutions, a warrantless search is presumed invalid unless it falls within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, and the State bears the burden of demonstrating that the search falls within one of those exceptions. The automobile exception to the warrant requirement requires that the State demonstrate both probable cause and exigent circumstances. Probable cause requires, in turn, that the police action emanate from a well-grounded suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed. The definition of probable cause used to evaluate a warrantless search is the same as for a search warrant. The "four corners" concept applied to search warrants is applicable in the case of a warrantless search in that the trial court must decide whether the State has justified its warrantless conduct based on the "four corners" of the evidence presented at the suppression hearing. (Pp. 5-8)
2. The State's reliance on State v. Nishina, 175 N.J. 502 (2003), is misplaced. Unlike in Nishina, the officers in this
case did not observe anything of an incriminating nature in plain view within the vehicle. In addition, there were other factors in Nishina not present here that buttressed the conclusion that the officers acted reasonably and with
probable cause in that case. The Appellate Division properly noted a number of factors in this case that militated against a finding of probable cause, including: there was nothing suspicious about the vehicle itself or about the way the driver operated the vehicle; the vehicle was not stopped by the officers and the occupants exited on their own volition; and, there were no furtive movements of any kind. In addition, there was no indication that the outstanding arrest warrants were drug related; no testimony that the neighborhood was an area of high drug activity; and insufficient evidence to suggest that the quantity of drugs found outside the vehicle caused a suspicion that additional drugs might be found inside the vehicle. The State in this case failed to create the evidentiary record necessary to uphold its conduct. Moreover, we decline to rule on the State's alternate contention, raised during oral argument, that the drugs found in the automobile were fruits of a lawful search incident to defendant's arrest. We confine our review solely to the question presented in the petition. (Pp. 8-14)
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, LAVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN and WALLACE join in ...