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Judges OK warrantless searches of locked glove boxes

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Judges OK warrantless searches of locked glove boxes

Jun 12, 2024 | 2:13 pm ET
By Nikita Biryukov
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Judges OK warrantless searches of locked glove boxes
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Containers in a vehicle's interior do not enjoy greater protections from warrantless searches, even if they are locked, judges ruled Wednesday. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A legal exception that allows police to search vehicles without first obtaining a warrant in some circumstances extends to locked glove boxes and other secured compartments within a vehicle’s interior, a state appellate panel ruled Wednesday.

The three-judge panel’s decision overturns a trial court ruling that found police exceeded the authority afforded them under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement for searches when they opened a locked glove box during a November 2018 traffic stop search initiated after an officer smelled marijuana.

The three defendants — Tavius Wilson, James Hooks, and Sadale Loatman — faced a series of firearms charges over three handguns found in the glove box and argued that evidence should be suppressed because a locked container carried a greater expectation of privacy and could not be opened while the vehicle was running.

They said the search violated protections against unreasonable search and seizure in the Fourth Amendment and the New Jersey Constitution.

The judges rejected those arguments in Wednesday’s decision, reasoning they would all but eviscerate the automobile exception, which exists to allow searches where evidence might be destroyed or hidden if police were to leave the scene and seek a warrant.

“Whether locked or not, a glove box is just as ‘readily mobile’ as the vehicle and thus its contents are subject to the same inherent risks associated with mobility that gives rise to the automobile exception,” the court ruled.

The court turned down defendants’ arguments that the glove box could not be searched because it was locked and inaccessible to them, noting the automobile exception pays no heed to accessibility.

Court precedent limits warrantless searches of locked trunks if such a search would be unreasonable or unrelated to the initial justification for the warrantless search. Wednesday’s ruling says that does not also shield a locked container inside the vehicle’s interior.

“As a matter of common experience as well as common sense, a glove box that opens directly onto the front passenger seat is part of the passenger compartment. It is not part of the engine compartment or trunk/rear storage area,” the judges wrote.

They added the method police use to open a locked interior container could taint a warrantless search. The automobile exception “does not contemplate disassembling a vehicle or using the jaws of life to find the objects of the search,” they said, but it would allow containers to be opened by a key or another less damaging method.

Searching a locked glove box or other container during a warrantless search may be a lesser intrusion than impounding the vehicle and holding its occupants while authorities obtain a warrant, the court added.

The odor of marijuana no longer constitutes probable cause to initiate a warrantless search in New Jersey, but the 2022 law that barred the practice was not applied retroactively.