The New Jersey Supreme Court recently approved a warrantless search of a vehicle’s glove box for registration and related documentation. In doing so, the Court set parameters for when such a search will be constitutionally valid.
Defendant’s truck ran a traffic control and almost hit a police car. The officer activated his lights and sirens and pursued the truck. Defendant did not stop, but continued driving erratically. The officer checked the vehicle, which was a rental that was not reported stolen. Defendant subsequently turned into a gas station and stopped. The officer pulled in behind the truck, while a back-up vehicle pulled in up front. The officer then repeatedly ordered the defendant to show his hands, but the defendant did not respond. The officer opened the vehicle’s door and ordered the defendant to get out. Defendant left the vehicle, leaned against it, placed his hands in his pockets, and asked why he was pulled over. The officer directed the defendant to show his hands, and he complied slowly. He was then patted down for weapons. He produced his driver’s license when asked for identification. He was then asked for a vehicle registration and proof of insurance, but did not respond. When asked a second time, he shrugged his shoulders. He did not make any gestures that would indicate that the requested documents were on his person or in the truck. When asked if he owned the truck or had any paperwork for it, he again failed to respond. The officer then approached the passenger door, opened it, and looked in the glove box which was believed to be the most common place for keeping such papers. He found nothing in the glove box, but discovered a handgun on the floorboard.
The motion judge denied a defense motion to suppress, finding that the officer was credible and had the right to search for the documentation in the place where it is typically kept. The court also found that the discovery of the handgun fell within the plain view exception to the warrant requirement. The defendant was convicted of weapons offenses at trial, but the Appellate Division reversed, finding that the warrantless search of the truck violated both the federal and state constitutions.
In reversing the Appellate Division, the Supreme Court found that the motion court’s determination was supported by credible evidence. Defendant was afforded a sufficient opportunity to present the requested documentation prior to the search. Further, when a driver cannot or will not present proof of vehicle ownership, an officer may conduct a limited search for registration papers in the places in the vehicle where they are typically kept. When an officer can quickly determine that a driver or accompanying passenger owns or lawfully possesses the vehicle, regardless of the inability to produce a registration, a warrantless search for proof of ownership will not be justified.
The Court built this conclusion on the well-recognized automobile exception to the warrant requirement, and the related idea that an officer can conduct a narrow search for proof of vehicle ownership when the driver cannot or will not provide a registration and insurance card. The other alternative is to impound the vehicle and conduct an inventory search. Further, our courts have repeatedly reaffirmed the limited registration exception to the warrant requirement. However, any such search must be targeted to the glove box or similar area where such documents are kept. Finally, the motion court’s finding that the defendant was given a sufficient opportunity to present the rental papers but failed to do so was well supported by the record.
This opinion once again illustrates the fact that vehicles are simply not subject to the same level of Fourth Amendment protection as physical structures, and evidence retrieved from a vehicle search will be relatively difficult to suppress.
James S. Friedman, LLC, is a criminal defense firm based in New Brunswick, New Jersey. We defend individuals accused of crimes in all New Jersey state and municipal courts, the New York State criminal courts in New York City, and all federal district courts in New Jersey and New York City. If you or someone you know has a charge in one of these courts, contact us to discuss your situation and to start planning your defense.