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A man arrested in Toms River and in prison for the past year and a half on drug and weapon charges which he admitted to owning is set to walk free because the cops failed to obtain a warrant prior to searching his car, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

Police stopping motorists to investigate crimes cannot search their cars without a warrant unless the circumstances that sparked their suspicion were “unforeseeable and spontaneous,” the State's highest court found.

The case stemmed from the arrest of Kyle A. Smart, who Toms River police charged with various crimes after finding drugs, weapons, and ammunition in his car.

Officers began surveilling Smart at a condominium complex one afternoon in August 2021, two months after a resident reported drug activity and a month after an informant told officers a drug dealer known as “Killer” drove a 2017 GMC Terrain around there, according to the ruling. Officer Louis Taranto had identified Smart, who had a prior drug record that included the “Killer” nickname, as a suspect through criminal records, the ruling noted.

Nearly an hour and a half after Taranto first spotted the GMC, officers pulled it over, according to the ruling. Smart had no drugs on him and refused officers’ request to search the car.

Nonetheless, officers called in a police canine who sniffed outside the car and signaled the presence of drugs, according to the ruling.

After police searched his car without his consent or a warrant, they found drugs and weapons that Smart admitted belonged to him, according to the ruling. 

Subsequently, a trial judge declared the evidence inadmissible because officers failed to get a search warrant. A three-judge appellate panel upheld that decision last June.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has now affirmed the lower court's ruling, citing New Jersey’s constitution, which provides greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than the Fourth Amendment, as well as precedential case law that allows police to forego a warrant only in “unforeseeable and spontaneous” circumstances.

Justice Douglas Fasciale wrote that while the canine's "signal" did establish probable cause, the circumstances leading to probable cause were not “unforeseeable or spontaneous, as the officers suspected criminal activity from the start. The investigative stop was deliberate, orchestrated, and wholly connected with the reason for the subsequent seizure of the evidence … A warrant was required before searching the GMC.”

“The fact that the canine sniff is what culminated in probable cause does not eviscerate the steps that led to the sniff,” he wrote. “The sniff did not exist in a vacuum, but rather served to confirm and provide evidentiary support for the investigators’ suspicions. The canine sniff was just another step in a multi-step effort to gain access to the vehicle to search for the suspected drugs.”

Attorney Clifford P. Yannone, of the Toms River-based firm of Starkey, Kelly, Kenneally, Cunningham & Turnbach, who represented Smart, went to court Wednesday afternoon to request his release from prison, and a judge agreed to free him. He’s been in prison on this case for over a year and a half, Yannone said.

The ruling serves as a resounding reminder to police to get a warrant, Yannone noted.

“I do certainly anticipate that the state will be dismissing these charges,” he said. “This is obviously a great victory for the privacy rights of motorists in the state of New Jersey.”

The Ocean County Prosecutor's Office filed this appeal. The court granted motions of the Attorney General, the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey, the Office of the Public Defender, the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey to appear as amici curiae.

Attorney Bruce S. Rosen of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden argued before the court on behalf of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey.

Attorney Alexander Shalom argued before the court on behalf of American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation.

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