Document Searches During Motor Vehicle Stops

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.

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