Q & A: Caught With Drugs in Your Car

Q: When is a Police Officer Allowed to Search My Car?

A: As a general rule, an officer will only be allowed to conduct a search if a detached and neutral magistrate/judge issued a warrant that is backed up by probable cause.

However, there is an exception for automobiles. An officer will not need a warrant in order to search your vehicle, only probable cause that contraband will be found inside.

Therefore, whenever an officer believes that there is a fair probability of contraband being found in the car (i.e. he smells it, he notices that you have red eyes, he sees that a passenger looks high, etc.), he can conduct a search of the vehicle for contraband.

Q: If I am a Passenger, Can I Get in Trouble if Drugs are Found?

A: Yes. Do not think that you can get away with having drugs on you simply because you are a passenger in the car.

Whether you are in the front-seat or back-seat, you can be arrested for drug possession (N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10).

Usually, in a case where there are multiple people in the vehicle and contraband is found, officers will try to ask questions in order to identify the owner or users of the drugs.

If this happens to you, do not admit or deny anything. Whatever you say can be used against you. Make sure to politely tell the officer that you do not want to answer any of his questions and to let him know civilly that you plan on continuing your drive unless he is arresting you.

If you do get arrested, tell every officer that attempts to talk with you that you are invoking your right to an attorney. Then, remain silent, do not answer any of their questions, and avoid saying anything at all.

Q: How are Drugs Classified in New Jersey?

A: In NJ, drugs are identified based on their risk for abuse. The higher the risk, the more severely they are classified (N.J.S.A. 24:21). The following is NJ’s list of scheduled substances:

  • Schedule I: Extremely High Risk of Abuse (Heroin, Mescalin, LSD, Payote, Psilocybin)
  • Schedule II: High Risk of Abuse (Opium, Cocaine, Methadone)
  • Schedule III: Some Risk of Abuse (Amphetamines, Methamphetamine, Morphine, and Codeine)
  • Schedule IV: Low Abuse Potential (Barbital and Phenobarbital)
  • Schedule V: Slightly Lower Abuse Potential (Morphine and Codeine in Low Concentrations)

Possession of a Schedule I, II, III, or IV drug is a third-degree criminal offense that can carry a prison sentence of 3-5 years and a fine of up to $35,000. Possession of a Schedule V drug is a fourth-degree crime that can carry a prison sentence of up to 18 months and a fine of up to $15,000.

Possession of other drugs like Gamma Hydroxybutyrate (i.e. Liquid Ecstasy) is third-degree crime with a possible prison sentence of up to 5 years and a fine of up to $100,000.

The penalties for marijuana possession are directly related to the amount that is found. For more information on the penalties for marijuana possession [N.J.S.A. 2C:35-10a(4)], see our “Marijuana Laws in NJ” page.

Q: If the Officer Asks to Search My Car, Do I Have to Let Him?

A: No. We cannot stress this enough, do not consent to a search of your vehicle!

Consenting to a search gives the officer permission to search even if he did not have probable cause to do so.

In other words, you are giving him the authority to do something that the law would not normally allow him to do. Most importantly, anything he finds can be used against you.

Some drivers worry that failing to give consent translates into the officer believing that you have something to hide. However, denying consent alone is not enough for an officer to have probable cause to search and a lack of consent cannot be used to prove guilt.

Q: If the Officer Asks Me to Get Out of the Car, What Should I Do?

A: In this case, you have to listen to the officer. The Supreme Court of the United States has decided cases dealing with this exact issue. According to the way these opinions have been interpreted, you almost always have to step outside of the vehicle.

However, this does not mean that the officer can search or seize anything in your car. Therefore, it is recommended that you abide by the following procedure when faced with this situation:

  • Vocalize Compliance
  • Turn Your Car Off and Take the Keys Out of the Ignition
  • Remove Your Safety Belt and Exit the Vehicle
  • Close and Lock the Doors Behind You

Doing this will protect your car from being unlawfully searched and will allow you to remain in control of who has access to your car.

Remember, once you are out of the vehicle the officer has a legal right to pat you down if he believes you are armed and dangerous. The law gives him that right in order to protect his safety. Therefore, if he begins patting you down, stay calm and do not resist.