The Scope of the Search of the Interior of a Motor Vehicle

The search of the interior of the vehicle under the “Terry” stop and frisk exception to the warrant requirement is limited. The object of the search is weapons or other objects that could harm the police officer or others. Accordingly, when searching the interior passenger compartment of the vehicle, the police may only search those areas where a weapon may be placed or hidden. A limited protective search for hidden weapons under the seats, within seat cushions, in the glove compartment, under car mats, and other readily accessbile areas in the vehicle are justified. On the other hand, searches of the trunk or locked containers within the vehicle are not justified under this exception to the warrant requirement because these hidden weapons are not readily accessible to suspects.

The New Jersey Supreme Court adopted the Michigan v. Long analysis in State v. Lund, 119 N.J. 35 (1990). The protective search is judged by whether a reasonably prudent person would be warranted in the belief that his or her safety or that of others was in danger. The measure of reasonabless is held to an objective standard.