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Constitutional Law Update:  NJ Court expands police powers to run background check

On February 11, 2008, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the case of State v. Sloane.  The high court’s decision expanded police powers to run background checks on the passengers of vehicles involved in a routine motor vehicle stop.  The high court ruled that police do not need a reasonable suspicion to access the NCIC database to check the criminal background of passengers.  This decision has the potential to change how New Jersey police conduct motor vehicle stops.  How will New Jersey police use this new authority?

The New Jersey Supreme Court routinely hears appeals of criminal cases involving the New Jersey and United States Constitutions.  When a person charged with a crime believes that the police violated his or her constitutional rights, he asks his attorney to bring a Motion to Suppress Evidence.  (See our article on this subject) When the trial court hears the motion, it determines whether the police violated the defendant’s rights.  If the trial court determines that the police did not violate anyone’s rights, the motion is denied.  When a motion to suppress evidence is denied, it is subject to review on appeal.

In State v. Sloane, the trial court denied a motion to suppress.  The motion was based on the following fact pattern:  “The police properly stopped a motor vehicle after confirming that its driver did not have a valid license.  They later rans a check on the passenger in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, which resulted in his arrest on outstanding warrants.  Police found crack cocaine on him during a search incident to arrest.” (Quoting from Supreme Court opinion.) After the conviction, Sloane appealed.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that during a motor vehicle stop, the passenger, like the passenger is subject to an NCIC lookup.  The court reasoned that the NCIC lookup is part of a routine motor vehicle stop, and that police do not need a reasonable suspicion before they may access the NCIC database.  The NCIC check is permissible so long as it does not unreasonably extend the time of the stop.  The high court directed that when law enforcement officers elect to conduct an NCIC check, they should act with dispatch to avoid prolonging a stop for more than a brief period of time.

The NCIC computer is an effective tool for law enforcement.  It allows police to identify and detain dangerous fugitives.  It reveals information about missing persons, wanted persons and persons with criminal records and outstanding warrants.  What does this mean to an average citizen?  It means that if you are a passenger in a car that is stopped by the police, the police can require you to provide identification for a brief background check.  The legal and constitutional question is how will the police implement this procedure?  This is not the last we will hear about this procedure.

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