Robert B. Spawn reports on a recent unpublished decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.
In a recent New Jersey case, a defendant was pulled over by the police for committing several motor vehicle violations. The police ran the vehicle’s license plate and determined that the defendant was the owner of the car, and the defendant also produced his license, which confirmed his identity. Nonetheless, because the defendant was unable to produce the registration for his vehicle, the officers conducted a limited warrantless search of the vehicle’s glove box and discovered a handgun. A subsequent search of the vehicle pursuant to a warrant revealed additional guns, and the defendant was eventually convicted of various weapons offenses. The Appellate Division initially affirmed the defendant’s conviction and the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress the guns as evidence, but the defendant then filed a petition for certification to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court instructed the Appellate Division to reconsider its ruling in light of the recent State v. Terry decision. In Terry, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the principle that, if a driver is unwilling or unable to present proof of a vehicle’s ownership, a police officer is permitted to conduct a limited search for the registration papers in the areas where they are likely kept in the vehicle (e.g., the glove compartment). However, the Terry Court also added a new limitation to this principle, namely, that, even if a driver is unable to produce his registration, a warrantless search for proof of ownership is not justified when a police officer can readily determine that the driver is the lawful possessor of the vehicle. Indeed, modern technology often allows officers to determine the ownership of a vehicle in the absence of any relevant proof from the driver.
Based on this guidance from the Supreme Court, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s conviction of the defendant and the corresponding denial of his motion to suppress. The Court reasoned that the officers were not justified in searching the glove compartment for the defendant’s registration card because they had already ran the vehicle’s license plate and determined that the defendant was the owner, and the defendant had produced his license. Thus, the Court held that this initial warrantless search of the glove box was invalid, and that the handgun evidence should be suppressed. The Court also held that evidence of the additional weapons in the vehicle should be suppressed, as discovery of those weapons was predicated upon the initial, invalid search of the glove compartment.
Please contact Robert B. Spawn if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with this subject.