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Court Upholds Search of Vehicle Without Warrant

Manchester Traffic Stop

It started when Daniel Jesus Cora  ran a red light in Manchester. Then he cut off a police officer. The officer pulled Cora over immediately. He smelled marijuana as he spoke to Cora through the window. So, he next told Cora to get out of the car. Cora admitted there were a “couple of roaches” in the car. Nevertheless, Cora refused to allow the officer to search the car.

Meanwhile, a second officer arrived. This officer saw drugs inside the car. So, the officers went in the car, grabbed the drugs, and arrested Cora.

Did the Police Need a Warrant?

This became an interesting legal case because the officers did not have a search warrant. They had probable cause to believe drugs were in plain view. Cora, however, did not agree to a search. Should the law require the officers to get a warrant? Or was it legal for the officers to go into his car without a warrant?

Under federal law, the United States Supreme Court long ago held that police officers can sometimes search a vehicle without a warrant. The officers must have probable cause to believe they will find evidence or contraband. This is called the “automobile exception”.

The State Constitution Sometimes Provides Greater Protection

New Hampshire officers must follow both the federal and state constitutions. In fact, in some cases the New Hampshire provides greater protection. For example, in 1995 the New Hampshire Supreme Court decided that our constitution does not support the “automobile exception”.

In a decision issued in late June, however, the New Hampshire Supreme Court changed direction. The Court changed its mind.  It decided New Hampshire constitution does recognize a “limited automobile exception”.  The officers search of Cora’s car, therefore, was legal.

Erosion of Privacy

One result of the war on drugs is the necessary invasion of privacy. To enforce the drug laws the police must snoop into every nook and cranny of our personal space. Only the courts can save us from becoming a complete big brother state. We are not going to sugarcoat it. As a result, the Cora decision is disappointing. New Hampshire has a long history of providing greater privacy protections. Some of that extra protection just went away.