Court Rules Police Were Wrong to Search Vehicle Without Warrant

By KATHY HENNESSY, The Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- The state Supreme Court has ruled police were wrong to search a car after a person with a history of outstanding warrants and with drugs in his possession got out of the vehicle.

The unanimous decision released Monday upholds an earlier ruling by a state appeals court that found police did not have the right to search the vehicle without a warrant.

"We reiterate that the warrantless search in this case is presumed invalid and that the government bore the burden of creating an evidentiary record necessary to uphold its burden," wrote Justice Peter Verniero in the court's opinion.

The case stems from a February 1999 incident in which Paterson officers on patrol recognized a man with outstanding warrants as a passenger in a car. Police called to him as he exited from the car and noticed the man had his hands inside his jacket sleeves. When police went to handcuff him, bags of marijuana and cocaine dropped from his coat.

After arresting the man, one officer approached the driver and the other continued to search the area for drugs. Without requesting consent, police opened the door of the vehicle and found 50 bags of crack cocaine inside. Officers later admitted that the drugs were not in plain view.

The defendant, who was charged with several drug possession offenses, had argued that police violated state and federal laws that prohibit a search without probable cause. Probable cause is well grounded suspicion that a crime has been committed.

In earlier court testimony, the state argued that the discovery of seven bags of drugs in the defendant's possession was enough probable cause to search the vehicle. No further evidence was given regarding why police thought there might be more drugs inside the car.

The court found that it was not enough for police to describe the quantity of drugs, their location on the defendant and their proximity to the car.

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