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New Jersey Court Overturns Strip Search Over $6.50 Traffic Fine
Appellate panel in New Jersey overturns the strip search of a motorist arrested over an unpaid $6.50 traffic fine.

Body search
Can police strip search a motorist over an unpaid $6.50 traffic ticket? The New Jersey Superior Court's Appellate Division said last week that such conduct is unconstitutional. A three-judge panel considered the case of Robert L. Evans, who was subjected to a search on January 4, 2012, after a Vineland police officer saw Evans pulling into, and then out of, a parking spot at the Days Inn.

Officer Felipe Laboy decided to run the plate on the car belonging to Evans, and the $6.50 traffic warrant appeared on his screen. Even though Evans committed no traffic violation, Officer Laboy conducted a traffic stop and placed the 25-year-old under arrest. The officer conducted a thorough search in which he felt a "bulge" in the groin area of Evans' pants.

"It wasn't a patdown search; it was an actual search," Officer Laboy testified. "It felt like a rocklike substance."

After obtaining permission from his superiors, the officer conducted a strip search and found small baggies of crack cocaine and heroin on Evans. A judge issued a search warrant for Evans's car, and a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver was found in the glovebox with ordinary, hollow point ammunition in violation of the state's strict gun control laws. Evans was sentenced to forty years in prison, but he may be off the hook.

"Based upon our review of the record, we also conclude the drugs seized from defendant's person must be suppressed because the police conduct was not objectively reasonable," Judge Marianne Espinosa wrote for the appellate panel.

The judges were upset that police failed to abide by the state attorney general's guidelines which say require a warrant for strip searches. The panel saw no excuse for the failure to obtain one.

"Although the record is unclear as to when the search warrant for the vehicle was obtained, the officers did obtain a search warrant for the automobile," Judge Espinosa wrote. "Therefore, the facts do not suggest it was impracticable to resort to a neutral magistrate... And, comparing the levels of intrusion occasioned by an automobile search and a strip search, reason fails to reconcile how the objectives of the Fourth Amendment are served by permitting a warrantless strip search when a warrant to search an automobile was obtainable and obtained."

The court sent the case back to the trial judge to figure out whether the search warrant for the car was based on the drug evidence from the illegal strip search -- along with a warning. The panel slammed the Cumberland County Superior Court for chaining Evans during the trial.

"The record fails to show any independent finding by the trial judge that defendant's conduct in the courtroom or other circumstances suggested a need for physical restraints," Judge Espinosa wrote. "The fact that it is the sheriff's practice to shackle incarcerated defendants during trial is wholly insufficient as a substitute for such a finding."

A copy of the decision is available in a 160k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File New Jersey v. Evans (New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division, 2/28/2017)

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