Can the Police Pull Me Over For Not Having a License Plate Light On My Vehicle?

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Defense Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

The issue in this case is can the police pull somebody over for not having a license plate light on their vehicle.  As a result of the stop the police officer walked up to the car after the defendant, Signode left but turn right. The officer then pursue the vehicle and observed that did not have a license plate. The officer conducted a motor vehicle stop, and ran the tags learning that the register vehicle was not reported stolen.

When the officer asked for the license registration insurance the defendant said he did not have a license but eventually produced a drivers license.  The driver never produce the registration or proof of ownership or insurance. The officer asked the driver to step out of the vehicle and conducted a field inquiry regarding where he was going where is coming from.  The officer then made various observations regarding the defendant demeanor which where the officer to believe the defendant may have been attempting to flee and that was a threat to the officer safety.

The officer conducted a patdown of the defendant but did not discover any weapons. The officer testified he also became concerned about the conduct of the defendants codefendant and the woman in the vehicle. They to gave inconsistent explanations why they were in the neighborhood.  The officer observed the codefendant reaching around the four of the front seat and not keeping his hands in plain sight. The officer remove the codefendant only to observe the woman try to climb into the front seat and appear very nervous. He conducted a patdown of the codefendant which failed to yield any weapons either.  When another officer arrived the stopping officer asked that second officer to search the defendants vehicle for registration card another proof of ownership since not have been provided.

When the second officer search the glove compartment he discovered a loaded weapon. The defendant, codefendant and woman were arrested.

The trial court initially denied the motion to suppress, A motion to reconsider was denied as well and an oral decision was rendered in August 2012.

In this case it is important to note that the court found the initial motor vehicle observations enough to justify the stop and concluded the officers observations were adequate to order the defendant out of the vehicle and Pat Downs for weapons.

With regard to the warrantless search of the glove compartment,  The court based its decision on a 1995 appellate division case which describes that, “when an officer has reasonable suspicion that a vehicle stolen, and the driver fails to produce the vehicles registration causing such suspicion, the officer may lawfully conduct a limited warrantless search of the area in the vehicle were such papers are normally kept by the owner.  State the Holmgren 282 NJ Super. 212 (App. Div. 1995). Once the weapon was observed in the glove box, the court then justified the officers observations being made in Plain-view as the basis to lawfully seize the weapon and arrest the defendants.

In this case also, as a previous blog, the trial court judge is given great deference at the time of the hearing. The Appellate Division will not overturn a trial courts findings of facts so long as those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. The appellate court will defer to the trial court which is substantially influence by the opportunity here and see witnesses and to have a “feel “of the case which the review in court does not enjoy. See State v  Elders 192 NJ 224 ( 2007). See also State v. Johnson 42 NJ 146 (1964).

However, the Appellate Division will overturn the trial court if there is an error of law.  Nevertheless in this case the quarter turn to several recent Appellate Division decisions including a state Supreme Court decision from 2017 which repeatedly affirms the police officers entitlement to search the glove compartment for ownership document materials when the driver has been provided the opportunity to produce his credentials and is either unable or unwilling to do so.  This “driving documents “exception to the warrant was search is long been recognized in order to assist the police produce “evidence of ownership” which is also mandated by New Jersey motor vehicle statute 39:3 – 29 even though the police have immediate access to onboard mobile data terminal’s to independently check registration and ownership.  The court stated that the computer access by the police does not relieve the owner and or the driver The independent statutory obligation to produce the registration and insurance documents.

In this case the defendant was offered the opportunity voluntary produce the registration and ownership documents yet he refused to do so.  Once the driver/defendant reviews to do so the officer is terminated permitted to conduct the limited glove box search it was there in, in Plainview, that the police officer waffle he observed the weapon and charge the defendant accordingly.

Jeffrey S. Hark, Esq.
609-471-1959. Cell
856-354-0050 Office

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