In State v. Kyle A. Smart (A-6-22/087315) (Decided March 8, 2023), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, as set forth in State v. Witt, 223 N.J. 409 (2015), did not permit the warrantless search of defendant Kyle Smart’s vehicle after an investigative stop because the police actions giving rise to probable cause to search the vehicle were not prompted by circumstances that were “unforeseeable and spontaneous.”
Facts of State v. Smart
On August 4, 2021, Officer Louis Taranto commenced surveillance in front of a condominium complex located in an area where frequent narcotics transactions and other criminal activity occurred. Based on information received a month earlier from a confidential informant (CI), Taranto identified a 2017 GMC Terrain parked at the complex as a used by a drug dealer known as “Killer.” Taranto conducted a database search and learned defendant had been listed with the moniker “Killer” and had multiple arrests and felony convictions involving controlled dangerous substances.
While Taranto was surveilling the GMC, he observed a female (the driver), defendant, and a child enter the GMC and followed them to a residence where he saw activity consistent with a drug transaction. At some point, Officer Samantha Sutter followed the GMC to the residence. Sutter knew that multiple drug users lived there. Indeed, two months earlier, a concerned citizen had notified Sutter that drug activity may have occurred at the residence. Taranto and Sutter reasonably suspected that defendant had previously engaged in drug deals at the residence.
The officers’ suspicions were bolstered when Sutter observed defendant exit the GMC and walk towards the backyard of the residence. Sutter was briefly unable to see defendant. Defendant returned from the backyard, accompanied by an unidentified female; he then entered the GMC while the unidentified female returned to the residence.
Considering the information from the CI and the concerned citizen, Taranto’s investigation, and the surveillance by Taranto and Sutter, Officers Taranto and Sutter determined they had reasonable and articulable suspicion to perform an investigative stop. After pulling over the GMC, Taranto patted defendant down, finding no incriminating evidence. After the defendant refused consent to search the vehicle, the police action continued by calling a canine unit to conduct a dog sniff to establish probable cause. The canine performed an exterior sniff and detected the presence of drugs. Thereafter, officers immediately conducted a warrantless search.
The trial judge determined the circumstances were not “unforeseeable and spontaneous” as required under Witt, concluded a warrant was required, and suppressed the evidence seized from the vehicle. The Appellate Division affirmed.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Smart
The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the order suppressing the physical evidence seized from the vehicle. “We hold that the circumstances giving rise to probable cause were not ‘unforeseeable and spontaneous,’” the court wrote. “Those circumstances included investigating previous information from the CI and concerned citizen about defendant, the vehicle, and narcotics trafficking in the area; lengthy surveillance of defendant and the vehicle; reasonable and articulable suspicion that defendant had engaged in a drug deal; and a positive canine sniff of the vehicle.”
As the New Jersey Supreme Court explained, the automobile exception to the warrant requirement differs under state and federal law. In State v. Alston, 88 N.J. 211 (1981), the New Jersey Supreme Court applied federal constitutional law and concluded that “the exigent circumstances that justify the invocation of the automobile exception are the unforeseeability and spontaneity of the circumstances giving rise to probable cause, . . . and the inherent mobility of the automobile stopped on the highway.”
While the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently held that probable cause to believe a car contains contraband “alone satisfies the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement,” the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed in Witt that the New Jersey Constitution offers greater protection than the Fourth Amendment with regard to the automobile exception through the extra requirement that the circumstances giving rise to probable cause be “unforeseeable and spontaneous” — in addition to the inherent mobility of the automobile stopped on a roadway. The New Jersey Supreme Court applied the above “unforeseeable and spontaneous” requirement to the facts of the case and determined that the exact opposite occurred. “The investigative stop was deliberate, orchestrated, and wholly connected with the reason for the subsequent seizure of the evidence … A warrant was required before searching the GMC,” the court explained. The New Jersey Supreme Court further noted that the question of whether the circumstances giving rise to probable cause were unforeseeable and spontaneous is a fact-sensitive inquiry that should be analyzed case by case.