The New Jersey Supreme Court considered whether the Mimms rule applied to passengers in New Jersey as well in State v. Smith, 134 N.J. 599 (1994). The Court found that ordering a passenger out of a vehicle is different from ordering a driver to get out of the vehicle because the passenger has not engaged in the culpable conduct that resulted in the vehicle stop. The court found that an order to exit a vehicle during the course of a routine motor vehicle stop constitutes a greater intrusion on the passenger’s liberty than on the driver’s. Because the passenger has not normally engaged in an obvious violation of the law, he or she has a legitimate expectation that no further inconvenience will occur other than the delay of a lawful stop of a driver. Accordingly, the court recognized a distinction between the privacy expectations of passengers and drivers and found that the passenger’s privacy interest is greater than that of the driver. The Court ruled that in order for an officer to require a passenger to exit a motor vehicle during a lawful stop, the officer must be able to identify specific and articulable facts that would warrant heightened caution to justify ordering passengers out of a vehicle detained for a traffic stop. The officer needs to establish some facts considered in the totality of the circumstances that would create a heightened awareness of danger for the officer.
In the New Jersey Supreme Court case of State v. Pierce, the Court limited the application of the Belton rule. State v. Pierce, 136 N.J. 184 (1994). The Court held that the Belton rule of permitting searches incident to a lawful arrest during a motor vehicle stop would not apply in New Jersey in those situations where the underlying reason for the arrest was a violation of the motor vehicle laws. Fearing that the statute could be used by police to effect arrests on the slightest pretext and use the opportunity to search vehicles under the Belton rule, the justices declared that searches under Belton shall not apply to warrantless arrests for motor vehicle offenses. Finally, in State v. Eckel, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that, under the New Jersey Constitution, Belton would no longer apply. State v. Eckel, 185 N.J. 523 (2006). With this decision, New Jersey police officers lost the option of searching a motor vehicle incident to the arrest of one of the vehicle’s occupants.
If the consent gives the officer permission to search the trunk of the vehicle, the trunk may be searched. However, it must be explicitly understood between the officer and the person giving consent that a search of the trunk is within the scope of the consent given. In State v. Leslie, 338 N.J. Super 269 (App. Div. 2001), the search of the defendant’s trunk was not explicitly stated in the consent and the drugs recovered from the trunk during the search were suppressed. An express, valid consent may also permit the search of closed containers and other areas not easily accessible in the vehicle.
The State is required to prove two elements during a hearing on a motion to suppress evidence, where the issue is one of consent. First, the State must prove by clear and convincing testimony that consent was freely, knowingly, and voluntarily given. This evidence should include proof that the defendant knew that he or she had the right to refuse to grant consent for the search. This can be shown through a written consent to search form, video evidence, or direct testimony from the police officer. The proofs only require knowledge to refuse consent on the part of the defendant, not that the police actually informed the defendant of this important right.
The second element of proof in the motor vehicle context is the requirement that the police justify the reason they sought consent to search in the first place. The request must be based upon a reasonable and articulable suspicion that evidence of a crime or contraband could be found within the motor vehicle. This can be proven through direct or circumstantial evidence. The conclusions made by the officer at the time of the request for consent must be based on a totality of the circumstances. The information available to the officer and the rational inferences to which they create must lead the officer to suspect that criminal evidence exists in the vehicle. Absent clear proofs on both of these issues, the incriminating evidence that was obtained through a consent search must be suppressed.
New Jersey law differs significantly from federal law on the issue of motor vehicle searches undertaken by consent of the driver. Article 1, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution provides more protection to individuals than the comparable provisions of the 4th amendment to the US Constitution.
In Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, the US Supreme Court ruled that when a subject of a search is not in custody and the prosecutions seeks to justify the search on the basis of the subject’s consent, the 4th and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution require that the State demonstrate that the consent was voluntarily given. The State must also show that the consent was not the product of threats, coercion, or duress. While the subject’s knowledge of his or her right to refuse consent is a factor that the court may consider on the issue of voluntariness, the prosecution is not required to demonstrate such knowledge as a prerequisite to establishing voluntary consent.
This is not the law in New Jersey. Under our state constitution, the prosecution must prove not only the voluntary nature of the consent, but also that the defendant knew of his or her right to refuse to give consent to the search.
The New Jersey Supreme Court has also recognized the existence of the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. Most of these scenarios concern fact patterns where individuals are driving extremely slow late at night leading officers to believe something is wrong. In these situations, it is reasonable for officers to believe that something is wrong with the car, something is wrong with the driver, or that the vehicle could constitute a hazard to other motorists. Each of these situations is justified under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement.
In State v. Washington, 296 N.J. Super 569 (App. Div. 1997), the observations of the arresting officer involved a vehicle that was weaving within the lane of travel and proceeding at a speed which was nine miles per hour below the posted speed limit. The court ruled that the traffic stop of the vehicle was justified based on the community caretaking exception. The court noted that the objective basis upon which to consider traffic stops under this exception is based upon the totality of the circumstances. Although weaving within the lane may not technically be a motor vehicle violation, the driving conduct offers sufficient justification for the officer to conduct a motor vehicle stop. Vehicles operated in this manner may constitute a danger to other motorists. In addition, there may be something wrong with the driver or the vehicle itself.
Apart from the drunk driving context, New Jersey case law has held that the community caretaking exception will also justify a limited search based on concerns for public safety. In State v. Diloreto, 180 N.J. 264 (2004), the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the police were justified in performing a pat-down search of a purportedly missing and endangered person. The justification for the search was based on the officers concerns that the endangered person might seek to injure himself or the police.
The United States Supreme Court first created the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement in the case of Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973). This case involved a drunk driving investigation by members of a local police department in Wisconsin. The defendant in this case was a Chicago police officer who had been involved in an accident. The vehicle he was using had become disabled as a result of the accident and had been towed away. During their investigation of the accident, the police officers became aware of the defendant’s status as a member of the Chicago P.D. They conducted two searches of the vehicle believing that the officer was required to carry a gun with him at all times, even when he is off duty. The first search was conducted at the scene and the second was conducted at the garage where the vehicle had been towed. The purpose of these searches was to recover the weapon as a matter of public safety. The local police maintained standard procedures for these types of searches. During the course of their search for the gun, the police discovered evidence that tied the defendant to a homicide.
The USSC upheld the search as valid under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. Ordinarily, the search with be administrative in nature and will involve a vehicle that is disabled or has been abandoned on the highway. The search is not based upon an effort to find evidence of a crime, but rather to perform an administrative function per established departmental procedures, such as accounting for and safeguarding property or determining ownership of the vehicle in question.
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.
The United States Supreme Court has authorized exterior searches for vehicle identification numbers (VIN). This issue was analyzed in New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1986). In this case, New York City police officers stopped a vehicle for speeding. The vehicle also had a cracked windshied which is a violation of New York law. The defendant exited the vehicle and provided the police with proof of registration and insurance but no driver’s license.One of the officers involved in the stop opened the door to examine the VIN, which was located on the left doorjamb of the vehicle. When the officer did not find the VIN there, he reached into the interior of the car in order to move some papers that were obstructing the area of the dashboard where the VIN is located on late model automobiles. When the officer did so, the officer saw the handle of a gun protruding from under the driver’s seat. The weapon was immediately seized and the defendant was arrested.
The Supreme Court held that the VIN is a vital component in the regulation of automobiles. As such, motorists should expect a substantially diminished expectation of privacy in the VIN numbers to their vehicles. This is especially true of a driver who has committed a traffic violation. Since the VIN is generally accessible and visible from the exterior of the vehicle, an examination may not even constitute a search. Since there is no expectation of privacy in the VIN, no showing of probable cause or reasonable suspicion of a violation of law is necessary for an examination from the exterior of the vehicle for this number. The Supreme Court found that it makes no difference that papers in the defendant’s car obscured the VIN number from plain view. The Court held that efforts to restrict access to a particular area do not generate a reasonable expectation of privacy where none would otherwise exist.
Under New Jersey law, there is no exception to the warrant requirement that will justify a search of a motor vehicle for driving credentials. Absent a specific recognized exception to the warrant requirement (such as a search incident to arrest or consent search), police may not conduct vehicle searches to locate a motorist’s driver’s license, registration, insurance card, or other necessary driving documents. This was the holding by the New Jersey Supreme Court in State v. Lark, 163 N.J. 294 (2000). Typically, in a credentials case, the police are confronted by a motorist who cannot produce his or her license, registration, or current insurance card. The police have a duty and responsibility to determine if the motorist is properly licensed, that the vehicle is not stolen, and that the vehicle is properly insured. The police are entitled to detain the motorist for this purpose. If the driver conceals their identity and there is no other alternative, the police may take the driver into custody. Presumably, the police could then impound the vehicle and conduct an inventory search (one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement).
Prior case law suggesting that police could conduct motor vehicle document searches as an aid to the motorist, so long as the search was limited to those areas where driving credentials are normally kept, such as a visor, center console, or glove compartment, has been overruled.