Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.
Legality of an Officer Entering a Vehicle without Permission
State v. Keaton, decided August 3, 2015 by the N.J. Supreme Court touches on the following issue that may be important to readers. Does an officer have a right to enter your vehicle for the supposed purpose of getting your registration and insurance, without first giving you an opportunity to retrieve the documents yourself? The answer is no. In this case, an officer responded to an overturned vehicle. The driver/defendant was being treated for minor facial injuries by paramedics. In order to write his accident report, the officer took it upon himself to enter the vehicle, without informing the defendant, and retrieve his documents. While entering the vehicle he saw a weapon, and marijuana. The trial court denied his motion to suppress evidence, but the Appellate Division reversed, leading to this petition to the N.J. Supreme Court.
Plain View Doctrine and Inevitable Discovery
The State’s main arguments were that the officer was permitted to enter the vehicle for the purpose of obtaining registration, and insurance. If he observes evidence of criminal activity in plain view while doing this task then there is no 4th Amendment violation in searching and seizing that evidence. The Court disagrees. Plain view doctrine means that if a police officers observed criminal activity right in front of his eyes, he is not obliged to ignore it. For example, if an officer stopped someone for speeding, and while writing a citation then observed a loaded weapon on the passenger seat, he may investigate this without it being a violation of the driver’s rights. However, in order for plain view doctrine to apply the officer must be in a lawful viewing area. Here, the officer did not lawfully enter the vehicle of the defendant, so there could be no plain view exception. The officer was obligated to give the defendant an opportunity to get the documents himself, especially since his injuries were minor. This prevents invasion of private space by officers, or the reality that some may use retrieval of documents as an excuse to investigate possible criminal activity. The State fought back by arguing inevitable discovery. Inevitable discovery refers to an exception to suppressing illegally seized evidence when it would have inevitably been discovered anyway. But, the Court did not find that the state proved inevitable discovery beyond a reasonable doubt. Had the officer not found any evidence of criminal activity there is no reason he would have later been able to search the vehicle.
The takeaway from this case is that officers do not have a per se right to search a vehicle for driving documents without affording the driver an opportunity to willingly present them. If the driver refuses however, there may be an exception.