When is a Warrantless Automobile Search “Unforeseeable and Spontaneous”?

State v. Baker, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2024). This opinion by Judge Currier, in a drug possession case, involved once again the automobile exception to the warrant requirement for a search. To summarize the facts, the police initially stopped defendants’ vehicle based on a reasonable suspicion of a motor vehicle violation because the vehicle had repeatedly swerved out of the traffic lanes and had then made an illegal u-turn. Once the vehicle had been stopped, the police determined that there were outstanding warrants for defendant, a traffic warrant and another warrant for violating probation. At that point, an officer smelled marijuana on defendant and in the vehicle, which permitted a search of the vehicle.

Those were the findings of the Law Division, which defendant contended on appeal were not credible. Judge Currier disagreed. She explained that, on appeal in this type of case, the Appellate Division must give deference to the trial court’s findings of fact, especially where credibility is involved. The Law Division had found the officer’s testimony to the foregoing facts credible.

But no deference was owed to purely legal conclusions, and defendant’s other contention was that under State v. Witt, 223 N.J. 409 (2015), a warrantless search of an automobile is permitted only if “the circumstances giving rise to probable cause [are] unforeseeable and spontaneous and the probable cause did not exist well in advance of the search.” Defendant argued that the circumstances here did not meet that test.

Judge Currier noted, however, that “[a]t the time of defendant’s arrest, an officer detecting the smell of marijuana during a routine traffic stop was a common example of probable cause to search an automobile arising in an unforeseeable and spontaneous fashion,” citing several cases. The panel was “satisfied that the finding of probable cause here, predicated on marijuana odor detected during a traffic stop, after a total of approximately eight minutes of interaction at defendant’s driver-side window, arose in unforeseeable and spontaneous circumstances.”

Defendant’s claim that the police had probable cause “well in advance” of the search also failed. Citing Witt and other authority, Judge Currier said that “an officer possesse[s] probable cause well in advance of an automobile search when the probable cause preceded the stop and securing a warrant was practicable.” That was not so here. Defendant’s position was predicated on the idea that there were two stops, but the panel concluded that the events all constituted a single stop. Accordingly, the Law Division’s ruling was affirmed.