Police should not have ordered driver out of car on traffic stop. State v. Keaton 222 NJ 438 (2015)
FERNANDEZ-VINA, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
In this appeal, the Court considers the circumstances under which a law enforcement officer may legally enter a disabled vehicle to obtain the driver’s registration and insurance information without first requesting the driver’s permission or allowing the driver the opportunity to retrieve the documents himself.
In March 2009, New Jersey State Trooper William Jacobs was patrolling I-295 when he was called to the scene of an automobile accident. When he arrived, he saw a black sedan overturned in the median. Defendant Duran Keaton, the vehicle’s driver, had already been removed from the car and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) were treating injuries to his face. In addition to ensuring the safety of the driver, clearing the scene, and restoring the flow of traffic, Trooper Jacobs was responsible for preparing a mandatory accident report. To complete the report, he was required to obtain the name of the driver, the vehicle’s registration, any insurance information, the vehicle identification number (VIN), the driver’s license number, and the owner’s address. The trooper did not ask defendant for the documents, but went to the overturned vehicle to obtain them.
Once inside the vehicle, Trooper Jacobs observed a handgun in an open backpack. He also saw a small bag of marijuana near the dashboard. He then located defendant’s identification, insurance information, and registration. Defendant was arrested and subsequently charged with multiple weapons offenses. Defendant filed a motion to suppress in which he asserted that the trooper’s entry into the vehicle indicated an intent to conduct a search of the vehicle, not merely an intent to retrieve the documents. He further asserted that the trooper should have spoken to him to discuss the vehicle’s ownership prior to entering the car. In response, the prosecution argued that the trooper satisfied the plain view exception to the warrant requirement and lawfully viewed the items seized. The trial judge denied defendant’s motion to suppress. The judge found the trooper’s testimony to be credible and concluded that he properly seized the gun and marijuana after discovering those items in plain view. The court noted that the trooper immediately recognized the handgun and marijuana as contraband and found that discovery of the contraband was inadvertent. Defendant entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to a four-year term of non-custodial probation, along with mandatory fees and penalties.
Defendant subsequently appealed. On October 29, 2013, in an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court and held that the search of defendant’s car violated the Fourth Amendment. The panel held that the trooper could only enter the vehicle if defendant was “unable or unwilling” to produce his license and registration. Because defendant’s injuries were not life-threatening, the court found that the trooper should have: (1) afforded defendant the opportunity on his own, or with the help of another, to retrieve the documentation; (2) recovered the documents or information from defendant at the hospital; or (3) waited until defendant was released from the hospital to obtain the information. This Court granted the State’s petition for certification. 217 N.J. 588 (2014).
HELD: The law enforcement officer was required to provide defendant with the opportunity to present his credentials before entering the vehicle. If after giving a defendant that opportunity, he or she is unable or unwilling to produce the registration or insurance information, only then may an officer conduct a search for those credentials. Here, because defendant was never provided with such an opportunity, the seizure of the contraband was unlawful under the plain view doctrine. Further, the community-caretaking doctrine was inapplicable because there was no need for an immediate warrantless search to preserve life or property.
1. The Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution protect against warrantless searches. Police are required to obtain a warrant to conduct a search unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies. Here, the State argues that the plain view exception and the community-caretaking doctrine apply. Under the plain view exception, a police officer may seize evidence in plain view without a warrant if the officer is lawfully in the viewing area when he discovers the evidence and it is immediately apparent the object viewed is evidence of a crime, contraband, or otherwise subject to seizure. The officer must discover the evidence inadvertently, meaning that he did not know in advance where evidence was located nor intend beforehand to seize it.
2. Police officers who investigate a motor vehicle accident are required to complete an accident report. The Commission of Motor Vehicles (Commission) promulgates this report, which calls for sufficiently detailed information including the cause, the conditions then existing, the person and vehicles involved, if the parties were wearing seat belts or on cellular phones, and other information. The report must be forwarded to the Commission within five days after the investigation of the accident. A traffic violation may justify a search for things relating to that stop. If the vehicle’s operator is unable to produce proof of registration, the officer may search the car for evidence of ownership. Such a search must be reasonable in scope and tailored to the degree of the violation. A search to find the registration would be permissible if confined to the glove compartment or other area where registration might normally be kept in a vehicle.
3. The Appellate Division considered facts and circumstances similar to those presented by this matter in State v. Jones, 195 N.J. Super. 119, 122 (App. Div. 1984). There, police arrived at the scene to find an overturned vehicle. Officers approached the defendant, who only received minor cuts and bruises, and requested he produce his license and vehicle identification. While able to produce his license, the defendant also indicated his vehicle credentials were still inside the overturned car. As such, one of the responding officers entered the car through the driver’s side door in order to obtain the necessary information. While inside the car, the officer observed an open toiletry bag, which was found to contain a vial filled with a white powdery substance and a razor blade. Suspecting the substance was cocaine, the officer seized the items.
The trial judge granted the defendant’s motion to suppress and the State appealed, contending the evidence was in the officer’s plain view and, therefore, he had a right to enter the automobile to search for proof of ownership and the insurance card. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s suppression of the evidence, finding that a defendant’s constitutional right to privacy in his vehicle and personal effects cannot be subordinated to mere considerations of convenience to the police short of substantial necessities grounded in public safety. The panel noted the officer was obliged to make an accident report, but did not have a right to enter the car to search for the registration and insurance card before affording the defendant a reasonable opportunity to obtain them himself. Thus, under settled law, the warrantless search of a vehicle is only permissible after the driver has been provided the opportunity to produce his credentials and is either unable or unwilling to do so.
4. Here, defendant was never provided such an opportunity. The trooper did not speak to defendant at the scene of the accident. The trooper never asked the EMTs for help in determining whether defendant was able to provide his credentials. Instead, the trooper made the decision to search defendant’s car for credentials only for the trooper’s convenience and expediency, without ever providing defendant the opportunity to present them. Defendant was never provided a reasonable opportunity to present his credentials, and therefore, the search of his vehicle cannot be justified under the plain view exception to the warrant requirement.
5. Further, under the inevitable discovery doctrine, in order to have otherwise inadmissible evidence admitted, the State is required to show: (1) proper, normal and specific investigatory procedures would have been pursued in order to complete the investigation of the case; (2) under all of the surrounding relevant circumstances the pursuit of those procedures would have inevitably resulted in discovery of the evidence; and (3) the discovery of the evidence through the use of such procedures would have occurred wholly independently of such evidence by unlawful means.
The State must offer clear and convincing evidence to sustain its burden. Here, the State has failed to demonstrate, by clear and convincing evidence, that law enforcement officials would have inevitably discovered the contraband in defendant’s vehicle. There is no evidence to suggest that the police intended to impound or inventory defendant’s vehicle. That logically indicates that the State did not demonstrate that proper, normal, and specific investigatory procedures would have been pursued in order to complete the investigation of the case.
6. Finally, the State’s argument that the community-caretaking doctrine permitted the trooper to enter the vehicle to complete the accident report is also without merit. The community-caretaking doctrine is a narrow exception to the warrant requirement. Here, the trooper’s role as a community-caretaker did not permit him to conduct the search of defendant’s vehicle because the trooper’s statutory duty to prepare an accident report is not an exigent circumstance encompassed by the community-caretaker exception to the warrant requirement.
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.