Can the Police Search My Rental Car’s Center Console?

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

State v Hamlett A-4399-14T2

In this case the defendant plead guilty to three different indictments for three different criminal cases pending against him. On appeal he raised an argument that the police were not allowed to search his rental car and specifically the center console of the car when they pulled him over for a motor vehicle violation.

Factually, the defendant was pulled over for an alleged motor vehicle violation. The car the defendant was driving was rented by another person.  The defendant, as a result, did not know where the rental agreement was located in the car. While he was looking for the registration paperwork he quickly opened and shut the center console between the driver and passenger seat. The police allowed the defendant to make a call to find out where the rental agreement was. When the defendant was unable to produce his own drivers license, ONLY THEN, did the police officer order him out of the car. He patted the defendant down for weapons and placed him on the curb. In order to avoid unnecessary prolong motor vehicle stop the police officer conducted a limited search of the side visor glove compartment and the compartment located near the gearshift. When the officer open the center console, between the two front seats, he observed a great deal of illegal CDs and cash.

The trial judge denied the defendant’s Motion to Suppress. The trial court, relying upon the officer’s credible testimony that the defendant made a quick movements of opening and closing the center console without working through it, coupled with his inability to produce produce valid license enabled the officer to conduct the limited search for the documents in question in the most reasonable place where they would be located in the vehicle.  The court found the officer had a reasonable belief the registration and rental agreement documents will be in those few spots. While conducting that limited search the drugs were observed in plain view.

Remember the Appellate Division’s job is not to review the evidence. The appellate court has to defer to the trial courts on factual findings so long as they are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record. The trial judge is afforded substantial difference because of his or her opportunity hear and see the witnesses and have a feel for the case which the reviewing court is unable to.  The Appellate Division is able to disregard findings of fact and credibility determinations only when they are “clearly mistaken”. Nevertheless, legal conclusions of the trial court are always reviewed.  Here are the legal question is whether the officer was allowed to conduct the limited search for the vehicle credentials without probable cause of criminality without heightened concern for their own safety?

The court stated: “It is the state’s burden, by a preponderance of the evidence, at the Motion to Suppress stage to establish the warrantless search was justified in light of that “totality of the circumstances”.  The court referred to the 1980 Supreme Court decision in State v. Patino, 83 N.J. 1 (1980), which recognized that following a traffic violation, the police search of the vehicle was permissible if reasonable in scope and tailored to the degree of the traffic violation.  The court looked further back to a 1967 Supreme Court decision that recognize, “if the operator is unable to produce proof of registration, the officer may search the car for evidence of ownership “.  In recent years this principal has been limited and  searches deemed inappropriate and illegal when they were overly broad. In other words if the driver had his license, but could not obtain or find the registration, there was no basis for the search, no basis for arrest, and no basis for detention.

In this case, the defendant did not produce his license. In the case law regarding licenses, the police are allowed to detain a driver for further questioning until satisfied of the drivers true identity, and the law allows the police to arrest the driver for operating a vehicle without a license. The officer may not demand the driver out of the vehicle to look for identification without probable cause that a further offense has been committed.

The court goes on to recognize that the appellate division has allowed limited warrantless searches of a vehicle for documentation if the defendant is unable or unwilling to produce same event without probable cause of further offenses being committed.  Nevertheless, the police are very limited in where they can search at that time. Law enforcement is not allowed to go into personal bags or belongings to look for the vehicle identification information. Law enforcement searches “must be confined to the glove box compartment or other areas where registration might normally be kept.”  In these limited searches the defendant must be either unable or unwilling to produce those credentials in order to give the police a greenlight to search those limited areas.  This law enforcement entitlement is also limited to circumstances where the driver has been provided the opportunity to produce his or her credentials and is either unwilling or unable to do so. In other words the police cannot merely enter a car at the scene of a crash without asking the defendant first credentials.   In other words, the police must ask first to determine if the drivers are purposefully unwilling to produce same from individuals that are involved in a motor vehicle crash and are able to give consent.

So in summary, if you are driving your car and do not have your registration the police are allowed to search the vehicle if you purposefully are not agreeing so long as the search is limited to where the registration may be located. If they observe any illegal substance in plain view  you can be charged with same.

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

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