Impounded Vehicles in New Jersey Part 2

If a vehicle is to be impounded in New Jersey, does a driver or passenger have the right to remove personal possessions from the vehicle before the impoundment or inventory search? According to the New Jersey Supreme Court, occupants of an impounded motor vehicle maintain the right to make suitable arrangements for their personal possessions prior to an inventory search of an impounded motor vehicle. In State v. Mangold, the Court held that police have an affirmative duty to provide the vehicle's occupants a reasonable opportunity to remove personal effects from an impounded motor vehicle prior to an inventory search. This assumes that the owner or other responsible individual is present at the time of the lawful impoundment. If this is the case, absent consent by the owner or other responsible party, the impounded vehicle may not be subject to an inventory search. In such cases, the owner or other responsible person will be presumed to have assumed the risk for any claims of loss or theft arising from the impoundment.

The rights afforded to the owners and operators of motor vehicles that are subject to an inventory search following an impoundment are based on Article 1, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution and are intended to afford people in New Jersey enhanced protection. Both the initial impoundment and the subsequent inventory search must be lawful. Also, the enhanced protections under the New Jersey Constitution apply even when the vehicle is impounded for the purpose of civil forfeiture.

New Jersey Law Regarding Impoundment of Vehicles and Inventory Searches

The New Jersey view on impounding vehicles and inventory searches concerns the procedures surrounding the impoundment of a motor vehicle. New Jersey police must give the driver of the car a reasonable opportunity to make arrangements for the care of the vehicle before the police may impound it and conduct an inventory search. This rule applies regardless of whether the driver is to be taken into custody for a violation of law or the driver simply receives a ticket for the violation. Unless the driver gives his or her voluntary consent to the impoundment, the police must first give him or her an opportunity to make arrangements for the care of the vehicle.

Typically, if the driver is stopped by the police and is unable to continue his operation (because he is driving on a suspended license or because there is a bench warrant out for his arrest) the police must give the driver an opportunity to make arrangements for the care of the vehicle. The driver can arrange for a substitute driver to take the vehicle and the police may permit the operator to safely and legally park the vehicle rather than having it impounded.

Certain statutes provide police with authority to impound motor vehicles. For example, N.J.S.A. 39:3-4 authorizes police officers to remove any unregistered vehicle from a public highway. Also, police may remove from the roadway any disabled or unattended vehicle that blocks traffic. This statutory authority comes from N.J.S.A. 39:4-136. As long as the proper procedures are followed for a valid impoundment and inventory search, this is a valid exception to the warrant requirement.

Inventory Searches and Impoundment of Motor Vehicles

As part of the community caretaking function, police departments frequently impound motor vehicles for reasons other than law enforcement. Motor vehicle accidents may leave vehicles in a spot where they block traffic or constitute a dange to the driving public. Also, improperly parked vehicles are sometimes removed from the highway for public safety reasons. Motor vehicles are also impounded by the police for law enforcement purposes. The vehicles may be unregistered or uninsured. They may contain evidence of a crime or the car itself may be connected to illegal activity. Police routinely conduct an inventory search of a motor vehicle after it is taken into custody.

The inventory search is conducted for multiple reasons. First, the police have an obligation to protect the owner's property while the vehicle remains in police custody. Police departments also need to protect themselves against unwarranted claims or disputes over lost, damaged, or stolen property. The US Supreme Court has viewed inventory searches as a result of a lawful impoundment of a motor vehicle to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution. This is, therefore, another valid exception to the warrant requirement and constitutes a valid warrantless search under the Constitution.