NJ Supreme Court makes “plain view” car searches easier
State v. Xiomara Gonzales (A-5-15) (075911)
Decided November 15, 2016
Albin, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
In this appeal, the Court considers the proper scope of the plain-view exception to the warrant requirement under Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution and whether inadvertent discovery of contraband or evidence of a crime should remain a predicate for a plain-view seizure.
The constitutional question in this case arises out of defendant Xiomara Gonzales’s appeal from the denial of her motion to suppress evidence seized by police from the vehicle she was driving on February 7, 2009. Pursuant to their ongoing investigation of a drug-distribution scheme, the police learned that Gonzales and a codefendant were going to retrieve a package that day that the Prosecutor’s Office suspected would contain a large quantity of heroin. After Gonzales and the codefendant made two stops in separate cars, the codefendant placed two blue plastic bags on Gonzales’s back seat, and Gonzales headed toward the Garden State Parkway.
Two officers followed Gonzales. They saw her speed, turn left on a red light, and pass through a toll on the Garden State Parkway without paying. The officers pulled Gonzales over to the shoulder of the Parkway.
As Officer Perez approached Gonzales’s car, he saw that items had spilled from the blue bags onto the rear floorboard. He “immediately identified” the spilled items as “bricks of heroin.” Gonzales was arrested and the bags sealed. At a secure site, it was determined that the bags contained 270 bricks of heroin.
Gonzales was charged with first-degree distribution of more than five ounces of heroin, first-degree possession of heroin with the intent to distribute, third-degree possession of heroin, and second-degree conspiracy to commit racketeering. Gonzales moved to suppress the evidence.
The trial court denied the motion to suppress, determining that the plain-view exception to the warrant requirement justified the warrantless seizure of the heroin because Officer Perez (1) was lawfully present beside Gonzales’s car; (2) discovered the heroin “inadvertently” due to the spillage; and (3) had specialized training and experience in narcotics detection that made the incriminating nature of the packaged heroin “immediately apparent” to him. The trial court therefore upheld the constitutionality of the search.
The Appellate Division reversed. Adhering to the plain-view test established in State v. Bruzzese, 94 N.J. 210, 236–38 (1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1030, 104 S. Ct. 1295, 79 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1984), the appellate panel concluded that, because the motor-vehicle stop was a pretext to enable police to seize drugs they knew to be present in Gonzales’s car, Officer Perez’s discovery of the heroin did not meet the inadvertence prong of the plain-view exception. In reaching this conclusion, the panel did not address the fact that, since Bruzzese, the United States Supreme Court has expressly held that the “inadvertent” discovery of incriminating evidence is not a prerequisite for plain-view seizure. The panel also found that exigent circumstances did not justify the search because the police had time to obtain a warrant while pursuing Gonzales’s car. The panel thus remanded the case for further proceedings.
The Court granted the State’s petition for certification. 223 N.J. 164 (2015).
HELD: The Court now excises the inadvertence requirement from the plain-view doctrine. Because it is setting forth a new rule of law, the Court will apply the reformulated plain-view doctrine prospectively. Nevertheless, the Court holds that the trial court’s finding of inadvertence is supported by credible evidence in the record. The Court therefore reverses the judgment of the Appellate Division and reinstates the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress.
1. The Court notes that both the New Jersey and Federal Constitutions protect against “unreasonable searches and seizures” and forbid the issuance of a warrant absent “probable cause.” N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 7; see U.S. Const. amend. IV. Warrantless searches are prohibited unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies such as the plain-view doctrine, which authorizes an officer to seize evidence or contraband that is in plain view.
2. The United States Supreme Court established the factual predicates necessary to satisfy the plain-view exception in Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 465-72, 91 S. Ct. 2022, 2037-41, 29 L. Ed. 2d 695, 582-87 (1984). In that decision, a plurality of the Court established three requirements for the exception: (1) The officer must be lawfully in the viewing area when making the observation; (2) the evidence must be discovered inadvertently; and (3) the incriminating nature of the evidence to be seized must be immediately apparent to the officer. The purpose of the inadvertence requirement was to ensure that police obtain warrants when they have advance knowledge of incriminating evidence or contraband subject to seizure. The requirement was never adopted by a majority of the Court.
3. In Horton v. California, 496 U.S. 128, 110 S. Ct. 2301, 110 L. Ed. 2d 112 (1990), the United States Supreme Court interred the inadvertence requirement as a predicate for a plain-view seizure of evidence. The majority of the Court found that other aspects of search-and-seizure jurisprudence protect against the concerns that the inadvertence requirement aimed to address. The Court also rejected the inadvertence requirement because it necessitated a subjective inquiry into the officer’s state of mind. The Court thus explicitly stated that inadvertence was not a necessary predicate to a plain-view seizure, a position that a majority of states have since adopted.
4. Before Horton was decided, this Court adopted the Coolidge plurality’s formulation of plain view in Bruzzese. Even in espousing the three-prong plain-view standard, however, the Court expressed the view that the standard of objective reasonableness governs the validity of a search or seizure. This Court continued to apply the three-part test in the post-Horton era, but without occasion to assess whether a plain-view seizure would pass muster in the absence of inadvertence.
5. The Court stresses the preference for objective standards over subjective inquiries in both federal and New Jersey search-and-seizure jurisprudence
6. The Court now excises the inadvertence requirement from the plain-view doctrine. The Court finds subjective inquiry into an officer’s motives to be at odds with the standard of objective reasonableness that applies to a police officer’s conduct under the New Jersey Constitution. The Court notes that the constitutional limiting principle of the plain-view doctrine is that the officer must lawfully be in the area where he observed and seized the item, and that it must be immediately apparent that the seized item is evidence of a crime. Because the Court sets forth a new rule of law, the Court will apply the reformulated plain-view doctrine prospectively.
7. Thus, the Court applies the now-defunct three-part plain-view test to the facts of this case. The Court concludes that all three parts of the test were met. The motor-vehicle violations gave the officers a reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop Gonzales’s car, and Officer Perez’s training made the nature of the spilled items “immediately apparent.” Finally, the trial court’s finding that the discovery was inadvertent was supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record, and the appellate panel should have deferred to that finding.
8. The Court observes that the appellate panel also erred in finding that the police lacked exigent circumstances to act, stressing that the officers were not required to watch helplessly as Gonzales drove away with what the authorities reasonably believed was a cache of drugs. Here, again, the plain-view observation of the spilled heroin provided the basis for the seizure of the contraband.
9. The Court provides guidance as to the limits of the plain-view exception and the continuing need to obtain a warrant when there is sufficient time to do so.
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress is REINSTATED. The matter is REMANDED to the Appellate Division for consideration of the remaining sentencing issue.