Footage of what appears to be a New Jersey plainclothes police officer conducting an illegal vehicle search has gone viral after being posted on social media.
The video (below) was posted July 14 to Facebook with the following caption:
"SHOCK VIDEO: Patterson New Jersey Police Caught Illegally BREAKING INTO African American Man's Car . . . They're Like F*** THE CONSTITUTION!!!"
The video quickly went viral and has achieved more than 2.1 million views so far. It is not yet clear when the incident occurred and the officer who appears in the video has not yet been identified.
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In the phone-recorded video, a man calls out to an officer dressed in a red shirt and khakis. The officer had been openly searching the back of the man's vehicle.
"Yo. What the f*** is you doing?" the man asks. "What is you in my van for?"
The officer attempts to get the man to walk toward him, prompting the man to reply that would "stay in the middle of the street.”
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The man, who claimed to have been eating with his family, had apparently left his back trunk open, according to the officer. When asked why he was searching the man's vehicle, the officer replied, while slowly backing away, that "[the police have been] getting a lot of complaints about guns."
Passaic County Sheriff's Office spokesman William Maer did not confirm whether the officer had a warrant to search the man's vehicle, though it does not seem likely he did, Paterson Times reports.
Officers in the state of New Jersey can legally search vehicles without a warrant, as long as there is probable cause of criminal activity; however, for circumstances to constitute probable cause, they must have been "unforeseeable and spontaneous," WNBC reports.
The Passaic County Prosecutor's Office is currently investigating the incident.
Civil liberties organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and Black Lives Matter have criticized the officer's actions.
Ed Barocas, legal director for the ACLU of New Jersey, called the video "incredibly troubling and disturbing" and noted that the officer's evasive demeanor after being asked what he was doing was "unprofessional."
"You have an individual who appears to be a law enforcement officer entering someone’s vehicle without permission and seemingly without any lawful authority. Not only is it improper, it’s a crime," Barocas argued.
Zelle Imani, a Black Lives Matter leader in Paterson, New Jersey, debated the legality of the search, pointing out that the officer did not have the man's consent.
"I'm really alarmed and upset about the whole situation," Imani added.
Internet commenters have been mostly critical of the officer's actions, with some speculating that the officer may have been attempting to plant evidence in the man's vehicle. Others have criticized the officer's evasive behavior as reason for prosecution, while a few maintain that he was simply doing his job.