Atlantic County police arrested two men on Wednesday, December 9, after discovering narcotics in their car during a routine traffic stop. In this article, our Atlantic City criminal defense lawyers explain when police officers are allowed to search your car in New Jersey, and whether warrantless searches go against state laws.

Two Men Arrested for Cocaine Possession and Distribution in Atlantic County

Around 10:00 P.M. on the evening of December 9, 49-year-old Jeffrey Young of Egg Harbor City and 21-year-old Justice Smiley were arrested by Atlantic County police officers Jeffrey Lancaster, Brett Fair, and Scott Nell, with assistance from Somers Point officer Rick Dill and his K9. Officers found unspecified amounts of oxycodone (OxyContin) and cocaine – both of which are classified as Schedule II substances – along with counterfeit bills.

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Young was charged with simple possession of cocaine, cocaine possession with intent to distribute (PWID), possession of counterfeit money, and, because he gave officers a false identity, hindering his own apprehension. Young is now in custody at the Atlantic County Jail, where he is currently being held on $50,000 bail.

Like Young, Smiley was charged with simple possession of cocaine and cocaine possession with intent to distribute, and was taken into custody at the Atlantic County Jail, where he is being held on $35,000 bail. Smiley was also charged with tampering with evidence.

New Jersey makes cocaine possession illegal under N.J.S.A. § 2C:35-10a. Because cocaine is a Schedule II drug, simple (personal) possession is a third degree crime, which is equivalent to a third degree felony in other states. While fines for third degree crimes are normally capped at $15,000, the statute allows for an increased fine of up to $35,000. Prison sentences for third degree crimes can be as long as five years. Drug distribution is more serious than simple possession, ranging from a third degree crime to a first degree crime under N.J.S.A. § 2C:35-5, which allows for fines as high as $500,000 depending on the quantity of the drug.

Tampering with evidence is a fourth degree crime under N.J.S.A. § 2C:28-6, subject to fines up to $10,000 and up to a year and a half in jail.
Under N.J.S.A. § 2C:29-3, interfering with apprehension by law enforcement can range from a disorderly persons offense – the rough equivalent of a misdemeanor in other states – to a third degree crime. Disorderly persons offenses, or DP offenses, carry a maximum fine and sentence of $1,000 and six months in jail.

When Are Police Allowed to Search Your Vehicle in NJ? Do They Need a Warrant?

What began as a routine traffic stop ended in two arrests on felony drug charges, which brings up a good question for drivers in New Jersey: can police officers search your car without a warrant? And if they don’t need a warrant, what do they need?

There was actually a recent court decision on this very matter. In September 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that police may conduct a warrantless vehicle search provided they have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains either evidence of a crime, or illegal contraband, such as drugs or guns (which could also lead to weapons charges).

Probable cause, the requirement of which comes from the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, is frequently described as “a reasonable amount of suspicion, supported by circumstances sufficiently strong to justify a prudent and cautious person’s belief that certain facts are probably true.” Due to a lack of absolute, black-and-white definitions, the existence of probable cause must be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis, which highlights the importance of having a skilled and experienced defense attorney representing you in court.

It’s important to be aware that police can also search your vehicle if you give your consent to a search. These types of searches are, fittingly, referred to as “consent searches.” If you are ever approached by police officers, know that you do not have to give your consent to be searched.

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The 5-2 ruling overturned an earlier Supreme Court ruling from 2009, which Justice Barry T. Albin, writing the majority decision, criticized for failing to “provide greater liberty or security to New Jersey’s citizens” while “plac[ing] on law enforcement unrealistic and impracticable burdens.”

The controversial decision was supported by some – questioned by others. Acting state Attorney General John Hoffman commended the decision for balancing “protection of citizens’ Constitutional rights and the paramount need for public protection and officer safety,” while dissenting Justice Jaynee LaVecchi described the ruling as a “turn from the progressive approach historically taken in this State to privacy and Constitutional rights of motorists.”

If someone you love was arrested for cocaine possession in Atlantic County, they could be facing devastating penalties if they are convicted. Call a John J. Zarych drug possession attorney at (609) 616-4956 to set up a free, completely confidential legal consultation. We have more than 45 years of experience handling felony drug crimes in Atlantic County, and have helped numerous clients preserve their freedom.