In this archive episode, Dennis discusses some case laws and offers tips on getting proof of vehicle ownership in the case of being unable to identify the driver. Recorded on 03/23/2018.

State V. Ornette Terry and searching cars in NJ for vehicle documents decided 03/14/18 (NJ Supreme Court). HELD: Sufficient credible evidence supported the trial court’s determination that the defendant was given an adequate opportunity to present the vehicle’s registration before the search commenced. When a driver is unwilling or unable to present proof of a vehicle’s ownership, a police officer may conduct a limited search for the registration papers in the areas where they are likely kept in the vehicle. When a police officer can readily determine that the driver or passenger is the lawful possessor of the vehicle—despite an inability to produce the registration—a warrantless search for proof of ownership will not be justified.

Argued October 11, 2017 — Decided March 14, 2018 — Corrected March 16, 2018

ALBIN, J., writing for the Court.

The Court considers whether an officer acted reasonably, in accordance with New Jersey precedents permitting a limited registration search without a warrant and the dictates of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State Constitution, when he searched defendant’s glove box.

Union Township Police Officer Devlin observed defendant’s GMC truck run a stop sign and almost strike his patrol car. Officer Devlin activated the overhead lights and siren. Defendant did not pull to the side of the road. Instead, without signaling, he zigzagged back and forth from the right to the left lane in traffic. Officer Devlin relayed the truck’s license plate number to a dispatcher, who notified him that the vehicle was a Hertz rental, which had not been reported stolen. After a half-mile, defendant turned into a gas station where he came to a stop.

Officer Devlin parked his patrol car behind defendant’s truck while a backup police officer in a marked unit pulled in front of the truck, effectively blocking it in. With the other officer beside him and their guns trained on defendant, Officer Devlin repeatedly ordered defendant to show his hands, but defendant made no response. Twenty to thirty seconds later, Officer Devlin opened the driver’s door and commanded that he step out of the vehicle. Defendant did so, leaned against the truck, put his hands in his pockets, and asked why the officers had pulled him over. Although Officer Devlin repeatedly instructed defendant to show his hands, he was slow to comply. The two officers quickly patted defendant down, assuring themselves he was not armed with a weapon.

When Officer Devlin asked defendant for identification, defendant reached into his pocket and presented his license. Officer Devlin next requested that defendant produce the vehicle’s registration and insurance card. Defendant did not respond, “[h]e just stood there with a blank stare on his face.” The officer asked a second time, and defendant “shrugged his shoulders.” Defendant made no non-verbal gestures to indicate that the papers were on his person or in the truck. Finally, Officer Devlin asked defendant whether he owned the truck or had any paperwork for it. Again, defendant did not respond. Officer Devlin went to the passenger’s side of the truck, opened the door, and looked in the glove box—“[t]he most common place” where papers are stored. Although he found no documentation in the glove box, the light from his flashlight reflected against a white object on the passenger’s floorboard. That object was a handgun.

The trial court denied defendant’s motion to suppress. The court found that Officer Devlin “was a reasonable and credible witness” and concluded that because defendant failed to produce the vehicle registration on demand, Officer Devlin had a right to search for the registration, rental agreement, and insurance in the area where such documents are usually kept. The court further determined that Officer Devlin’s observation of the handgun met the plain view exception to the warrant requirement. At the conclusion of a jury trial, defendant was found guilty of second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun and fourth-degree possession of hollow-point bullets. A panel of the Appellate Division reversed, determining that the warrantless search of defendant’s truck violated both the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. The Court granted the State’s petition for certification. 228 N.J. 448 (2016).

HELD: Sufficient credible evidence supported the trial court’s determination that defendant was given an adequate opportunity to present the vehicle’s registration before the search commenced. When a driver is unwilling or unable to present proof of a vehicle’s ownership, a police officer may conduct a limited search for the registration papers in the areas where they are likely kept in the vehicle. When a police officer can readily determine that the driver or passenger is the lawful possessor of the vehicle—despite an inability to produce the registration—a warrantless search for proof of ownership will not be justified.

2

1. One of the well-established exceptions to the warrant requirement is the automobile exception. A corollary is the authority of a police officer to conduct a pinpointed search for proof of ownership when a motorist “is unable or unwilling to produce his registration or insurance information.” State v. Keaton, 222 N.J. 438, 442-43 (2015). The State has a “compelling interest in maintaining highway safety by ensuring that only qualified drivers operate motor vehicles and that motor vehicles are in a safe condition.” State v. Donis, 157 N.J. 44, 51 (1998). That interest extends to ensuring that operators are not in possession of stolen vehicles. The operator of a motor vehicle must “exhibit the registration certificate, when requested to so to do by a police officer,” N.J.S.A. 39:3-29, and must “comply with any direction, by voice or hand” by the officer, N.J.S.A. 39:4-57. A “police officer is authorized to remove any unregistered vehicle from the public highway to a storage space or garage,” N.J.S.A. 39:3-4, or to impound a car that he reasonably believes may be stolen, N.J.S.A. 39:5-47. Had Officer Devlin not been able to search the glove compartment, his other option would have been to impound the vehicle. An inventory search of an impounded vehicle is a constitutionally permissible practice. (pp. 14-21)

2. Since State v. Boykins, 50 N.J. 73, 82-83 (1967), New Jersey courts have repeatedly reaffirmed the vitality of the limited registration exception to the warrant requirement. In Keaton, a unanimous Court affirmed and applied the limited registration exception, holding that when an operator is “unable or unwilling” to produce his registration, an officer may conduct a limited and focused search for the ownership credentials. 222 N.J. at 442-43. The Court made clear that a search for proof of ownership must be reasonable in scope and therefore “confined to the glove compartment or other area where registration might normally be kept in a vehicle.” Id. at 449. The authority to conduct a warrantless registration search is premised on a driver’s lesser expectation of privacy in his vehicle and on the need to ensure highway and public safety. The courts in a number of other jurisdictions have determined that, in appropriate circumstances, a limited warrantless search of a motor vehicle for proof of ownership does not violate the Fourth Amendment, and the Court continues to stand with those jurisdictions. (pp. 21-31)

3. The rationale for a limited registration search exception is (1) the minimal invasion of the driver’s reasonable expectation of privacy; (2) the furtherance of public safety in general and officer safety in particular; and (3) the recognition that, for constitutional purposes, a brief and restricted search is arguably less intrusive than impounding the vehicle and conducting an inventory search later. Accordingly, after a driver is given the opportunity to present the vehicle’s ownership credentials but is unwilling or unable to do so, a police officer may engage in a pinpointed search limited to those places, such as a glove box, where proof of ownership is ordinarily kept. If a driver or passenger explains to an officer that he has lost or forgotten his registration, and the officer can readily determine that either is the lawful possessor, then a warrantless search for proof of ownership is not justified. Modern technology may increasingly allow police officers to make such timely determinations. (pp. 31-34)

4. The trial court held that defendant was given a meaningful opportunity to present the truck’s rental papers, and he failed to do so. There is sufficient credible evidence to support that conclusion. From the objectively reasonable viewpoint of the officers, defendant was unwilling or unable to produce proof of ownership. At that point, the totality of defendant’s behavior raised a reasonable suspicion that the truck might be a stolen vehicle. Permitting a driver to maintain possession of a potentially stolen motor vehicle is a public safety risk. All in all, the officers acted reasonably, in accordance with New Jersey precedents permitting a limited registration search without a warrant and the dictates of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State Constitution. (pp. 34-39)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Appellate Division for consideration of the issues not reached by it on defendant’s direct appeal.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER, DISSENTING, observes that an examination of the history and scope of the driving credentials exception reveals that its foundation is far from strong. Chief Justice Rabner adds that the exception is potentially quite broad and permits law enforcement to search a vehicle without probable cause, when officer safety is not an issue, and when there is no legitimate need for credentials. Stressing the Court’s limiting principle—that a warrantless search for credentials cannot be justified when “the officer can readily determine that either” the driver or passenger “is the lawful possessor”—Chief Justice Rabner notes that, because officers on duty nearly always have access to electronic records, few warrantless searches for credentials could ever be justified.