Removal of Car Passengers: Justification

by | Mar 25, 2017 | Blog, Criminal Law, Know Your Rights, Monmouth County, Ocean County, Traffic Stops

Car PassengersDefendant later moved to suppress the seized narcotics and paraphernalia; the trial court denied the motion. The court found the stop to be lawful because of the passenger’s failure to wear a seatbelt. The court also found the passenger’s removal from the car to be lawful because the officers had reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity. Defendant later pleaded guilty to third-degree possession of cocaine, a controlled dangerous substance, and was sentenced to a three-year prison term in accordance with his plea agreement.

For the first time on appeal, defendant specifically challenged S.R.’s removal from the vehicle. The Appellate Division remanded to the trial court, which found that defendant’s reaching under the seat created the heightened caution required under State v. Smith, and warranted S.R.’s removal.

Defendant again appealed to the Appellate Division. In a split decision, the majority reversed the trial court’s order denying the suppression motion and concluded that the detectives failed to prove Smith‘s heightened-caution requirement. The majority held that stopping the vehicle for a seatbelt violation was a “ruse” that allowed the detectives to conduct a narcotics investigation.

The dissent maintained that the detectives lawfully stopped the vehicle because S.R. had failed to wear a seatbelt and they reasonably suspected that the men had purchased narcotics in Newark. The dissent concluded that a culpable passenger’s liberty interest is no different from that of a driver who commits a traffic violation and that asking S.R. to step out of the vehicle was permissible.

This portion of the holding makes any passenger’s choice of driver significant. A driver more likely to commit a motor vehicle offense is more likely to subject you to a roadside detention.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the heightened-caution standard announced in Smith, remains the proper test for determining the appropriateness of ordering a passenger from a car. Under the Smith test, defendant’s furtive movements inside a recently stopped vehicle provided an objectively reasonable basis for officers’ exercising heightened caution, justifying removal of the passenger.