In this archive episode, Dennis talks about recent case law regarding searching cars for documentation for proof of ownership. Recorded on 03/29/2018.

State of NJ v. Terry 2018 – Searching Cars for Documents

Defendant Keith Terry caused a patrol car to activate its lights and siren after the rental truck he was driving ran a stop sign. Defendant triggered a dangerous chase as he eluded the police, weaving through traffic before pulling into a gas station. The police removed defendant from the truck at gunpoint, and defendant did not respond to an officer’s repeated requests to show the truck’s registration or proof of ownership. In light of defendant’s silence and his failure to indicate he was in lawful possession of the truck, a police officer conducted a limited search of the glove compartment for the truck’s ownership papers and, in the process, observed a handgun in plain view on the vehicle’s floor. Thereafter, defendant was charged with and found guilty by a jury of unlawful possession of a firearm and hollow-point bullets.

Although the trial court denied defendant’s motion to suppress the handgun, the Appellate Division reversed and vacated defendant’s conviction. It held that the search was unreasonable because the police did not give defendant the opportunity to produce the truck’s registration.

We conclude that the Appellate Division erred in substituting its factfindings for those of the trial court. 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. We reaffirm our decision in Keaton—and in previous cases—that, 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. We add this limiting principle. 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.

The limited registration search exception to the warrant requirement has long been embedded in our jurisprudence and has been adopted by many other courts. We reject the constitutional challenge to the limited registration search exception, as applied here, and hold that the search of defendant’s glove box was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of our State Constitution.

Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and reinstate defendant’s conviction.

Also see State of NJ v Julian Hamlett