Jun 17

Can Police Search A Vehicle For A License

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Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968) permits a police officer who has a reasonable suspicion that a person is armed and dangerous to conduct a limited pat down search for weapons. The key issue is whether a reasonable prudent person in the officers position would be justified in believing that the safety of the officer or other persons was threatened. See, State v. Roach, 172 N.J. 19, 27 (2002). The sole lawful purpose of a pat down search on less than probable cause is to ensure safety. See, State v. Smith, 155 N.J. 83, 91 (1989). However, even if a pat down search is justified at it’s inception, an officer may not reach into a Defendant’s pocket to seize an object if the officer is satisfied that it is not a weapon. See, State v. Clarke, 198 N.J. Super. 219 (App. Div. 1985). Indeed, in State v. Clarke, the Court clearly concluded that “police may not uncover items not thought to be weapons during a pat down search for weapons”. Id. at 227. In Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993), the Supreme Court also held, upon frisking a suspect, an officer feels an item that clearly does not feel like a weapon, the officer may not seize it or further tamper with it to determine what that object is. Terry and its progeny only allow a pat down search for weapons, not identification. In Minnesota v. Dickerson , the officer felt a “small hard object wrapped in plastic” during the course of a “frisk” which turned out to be drugs. The Court suppressed the evidence, reiterating that the sole purpose of a Terry frisk was to discover items on a defendant that would render him “immediately dangerous”, not to search wantonly for any and all illegal items. Id.

Regarding the search of the passenger compartment, notwithstanding the motor vehicle exception to the warrant requirement, a police officer must still have “probable cause” to search a vehicle. See, State v. Wilson, 178 N.J. 7, 13 (2003); State v. Martini, 87 N.J. 561, 567 (1981). In State v. Lark 319 N.J. Super. 618, 625-627 (App. Div. 1999), aff’d o.b. 163 N.J. 294 (2000), the Court held where registration and an insurance card were produced, but the driver could not produce a license and gave a false name, the police had two options: detention of the driver for further questioning or arrest of the driver for operating a vehicle without a license, but NOT search the vehicle for identification unless there is probable cause to believe the car was stolen or that a further offense had been committed. While a police officer may stop a vehicle for a traffic infraction, they cannot convert a routine motor vehicle violation into an occasion for a full automobile search. See, State v. Pierce, 136 N.J. 184 (1994); See also, State v. Carty, 332 N.J. Super. 200, 204 (App. Div. 2000). In State v. Holmgern, 282 N.J. Super. 212 (App. Div. 1995), the court suppressed CDS evidence police located through their non-consensual search for vehicle documentation in a passenger’s duffel bag.

As a result, it is well settled that “{t}he exclusionary rule has traditionally barred from trial physical, tangible materials obtained either during or as a direct result of an unlawful invasion”. Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 485 (1963). Accordingly, items illegally seized from the Defendant’s personal belongings or from the compartment of the vehicle, without a warrant and without probable cause, must be suppressed.

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