On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Warren County, Indictment No. 11-04-001114.
Richard T. Burke, Warren County Prosecutor, attorney for appellant (Dit Mosco, Assistant Prosecutor, of counsel and on the brief).
Eric M. Mark, attorney for respondent.
By leave granted, the State appeals from an August 11, 2011 Law Division order suppressing evidence, illegal drugs, seized during a warrantless search of defendant's motor vehicle following a one-vehicle accident. The State argues that under the circumstances presented, the search was reasonable. We disagree, and affirm.
According to the State's proofs, on the morning of October 9, 2010, defendant Joshua Eastman had a one-vehicle accident while operating his pickup truck in White Township, Warren County. The truck rolled on its roof and into a telephone pole, exposing live electrical wires across the roadway.
New Jersey State Trooper Michael Ferrara responded to the scene. After securing the area from traffic, Trooper Ferrara located defendant, who was speaking with emergency personnel from the first-aid squad. When asked for his driving credentials, defendant said the documents were in his truck, which was inaccessible. When asked what happened, defendant explained he swerved to avoid a deer and must have over-corrected.
Upon the trooper observing that defendant was shaky, and had constricted pupils with track marks on his arm, defendant was administered field sobriety tests. Based upon the test results, Trooper Ferrara concluded defendant had operated his vehicle under the influence of drugs and placed him under arrest. Another trooper transported defendant to the Washington Barracks while Trooper Ferrara remained at the scene awaiting the arrival of the utility crew to cut the power to the downed wires.
About a half-hour later, the vehicle became accessible. When Trooper Ferrara approached defendant’s truck he found a wallet on the ground. He opened it and found defendant’s driver’s license, but no insurance card or registration. Because he needed these other documents to properly complete his accident report, Trooper Ferrara searched defendant’s glove compartment where he found not only defendant’s credentials but also what appeared to be illegal drugs in plain view. Laboratory analysis later confirmed the substance to be cocaine. Following his indictment for one count of possession of a controlled dangerous substance, defendant moved to suppress the evidence claiming the search was illegal.
Under the New Jersey and United States Constitutions, warrantless searches and seizures are presumptively invalid. State v. Pineiro, 181 N.J. 13, 19 (2004). In the absence of a warrant, the State bears the burden of demonstrating that the search falls within one of the few defined exceptions to the warrant requirement. State v. Maryland, 167 N.J. 471, 482 (2001).
The constitutional protections prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures "impose a standard of reasonableness on the exercise of discretion by government officials to protect persons against arbitrary invasions." State v. Maristany, 133 N.J. 299, 304 (1993). "Indeed, the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness." State v. Bruzzese, 94 N.J. 210, 217 (1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1030, 104 S. Ct. 1295, 79 L. Ed.2d 695 (1984).
Although there is a lessened expectation of privacy attendant to the interior of an automobile, in the absence of one of the recognized exceptions to the constitutional requirement of probable cause and a warrant, the evidence seized must be suppressed.State v. Patino, 83 N.J. at 1, 7 (1980).
In State v. Boykins, 50 N.J. 73, 77 (1967) our Supreme Court stated, "[a] traffic violation as such will justify a search for things related to it. So, for example, if the operator is unable to produce proof of registration, the officer may search the car for evidence of ownership, or if the officer has reason to believe the driver is under the influence of liquor or drugs, he may search the car for alcohol or narcotics[.]" (citations omitted). However, in Patino, supra, 83 N.J. at 12, the Court made clear that a search for evidence of ownership must be "confined to the glove compartment or other area where a registration might normally be kept in a vehicle." (quoting State v. Barrett, 170 N.J. Super. 211, 215 (Law Div. 1979)).
In State v. Jones, 195 N.J. Super. 119 (App. Div. 1984), where we addressed circumstances very similar to the facts presented here, the defendant was the operator of an automobile which overturned, resting on its roof. Police officers were able to extricate the defendant from the automobile by prying open the driver's door. Id. at 121. While the defendant was standing outside of the automobile which was still resting on its roof, an officer asked the defendant to produce his credentials. Ibid. The defendant produced only his driver's license, indicating that the registration and insurance card were inside the automobile. Ibid. After a tow truck operator restored the automobile to its normal position, the officer entered the automobile to search for evidence of ownership and the insurance card. Ibid. At that point, the officer observed illegal drugs in an unzippered leather overnight bag on the backseat. Id. at 122. We identified "the crucial issue in the case, therefore, [to be] whether the police officer had a right to enter the car to search for the registration and insurance card before affording defendant a reasonable opportunity to obtain them from the vehicle himself." Ibid.We ruled the officer did not, interpreting "Boykin and Patino as requiring a showing that defendant was either unable or unwilling to produce the registration and insurance card" to render the search legal. Id. at 123.
New Jersey law prescribes exactly what an officer should do when, during a traffic stop, a driver fails to present his license and then lies about his identity. The officer may either detain the driver for further questioning until he satisfies himself as to the driver's true identity, seeState v. Dickey, 152 N.J. 468, 476-78 (1998), or arrest the driver for operating a vehicle without a license, seeN.J.S.A. 39:3-29, 39:5-25; see alsoState v. Campbell, 53 N.J. 230, 237 (1969). The officer may not, however, absent probable cause to believe that a further offense has been committed, enter the vehicle to look for identification.
Similarly, in State v. Carty, 170 N.J. 632, 635 (2002), our Supreme Court held "that, in order for a consent to search a motor vehicle and its occupants to be valid, law enforcement personnel must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing prior to seeking consent to search a lawfully stopped motor vehicle."
The State claims that Trooper Ferrara properly opened the glove compartment of defendant's truck, to search for defendant’s registration and insurance card. The State argues it was appropriate that defendant was taken back to the barracks for a breathalyzer test and/or urine screen, which needed to be administered "within a reasonable time," State v. Tischio, 107 N.J. 504, 506 (1987), and the truck needed to be righted from its upside-down position and live wires cleared away before anyone could enter the truck. Hence, the State argues, it was reasonable not to give defendant a chance to retrieve the credentials himself. Once the trooper opened the glove compartment, he saw what appeared to be drugs and a spoon in plain view.
Defendant argues that the trooper had no legitimate reason to search the glove compartment for credentials, because he already had defendant's driver's license from his wallet and could see the truck's license plate number. The trooper also had plenty of time to verify, through his mobile data terminal, whatever he needed to find out about the truck during the hour-and a-half he was waiting for the utility crew to clear the power lines.
When defendant's vehicle became accessible, Trooper Ferrara entered the vehicle and searched the glove compartment without providing defendant the opportunity to obtain the documents. At that point, defendant was in police custody at the barracks approximately twenty minutes away and could have been escorted back to the scene in order to retrieve his documents.1 The record gives no indication that exigent circumstances existed, necessitating immediate action. Further, Trooper Ferrara did not otherwise have an independent basis for probable cause or a reasonable articulable suspicion to search defendant's vehicle.
Similar to the circumstances in State v. Jones, supra, 195 N.J. Super. 119, Officer Ferrara asked defendant for his driving credentials, and defendant responded truthfully that the documents were in the vehicle, but he could not present them because the vehicle was inaccessible.
In her thorough ten-page opinion, Judge Ann R. Bartlett explained why the search of defendant’s glove compartment was unreasonable:
In the instant matter, prior to arresting [defendant], the [t]rooper could have used his mobile data terminal to obtain information of the vehicle’s registration. He also should have contacted police headquarters and waited for confirmation of [defendant’s] identity and vehicle registration, which theCarty court noted was the appropriate course of action for the trooper in that case. There was ample time to make such an inquiry, given the fact the [t]rooper was waiting at the scene for the arrival of [the utility truck]. The [t]rooper could have questioned (defendant) either prior to his arrest or subsequently at the police station as to the whereabouts of his driver’s license, registration certificate, and insurance card. . . . There is no indication that (defendant) would have been unwilling or unable to produce the necessary documents, if the [t]rooper had given him the opportunity to do so.
Furthermore, as the more recent cases of Carty and Lark make it clear . . . an officer needs probable cause in order to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle for identification. Trooper Ferrara did not have probable cause or even articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. He had already arrested defendant for driving while under the influence, thus defendant had no way of accessing the vehicle or destroying any evidence therein. There was no indication that defendant may have been hiding controlled substances or alcohol in the vehicle. There was no suspicion that the vehicle was stolen. There was no suggestion that defendant had provided the [t]rooper with false information regarding his identity or ownership of the vehicle. Therefore, the warrantless search of the vehicle, specifically the glove compartment, was unreasonable. All evidence seized therein must be suppressed.
Considering all of these factors, we have no occasion to disturb Judge Bartlett's findings, which are amply supported by the record. State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007) ("An appellate court reviewing a motion to suppress must uphold the factual findings underlying the trial court's decision so long as those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record."). Nor do we have occasion to disturb her conclusion that the State failed to sustain its burden of demonstrating that the search falls within an exception to the constitutional requirement that police obtain a warrant before conducting a search.
Accordingly, we affirm the order on appeal and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Affirmed and remanded.
1 "Practical convenience in aid of law enforcement administration is laudable, but it is not an objectively reasonable basis to justify 'nibbling away' at our constitutional rights." State v. Lark, supra, 319 N.J. Super. at 631.