Police May Not Enter a Detained Vehicle Under the Authority of the Registration Search

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

Yesterday New Jersey’s Appellate Division held, in a published opinion in the case of State v. Johnson, established new rules which all New Jersey’s police must follow when conducting a motor vehicle search for a paper copy of a registration.

The panel reversed the trial judge’s denial of defendant’s motion to suppress drugs police found following a motor vehicle stop based on observed traffic violations. This case presents a novel question concerning the vehicle registration search exception to the warrant requirement. That exception authorizes police to enter a lawfully stopped vehicle to conduct a pinpointed search for a registration certificate if the motorist is unable or unwilling to produce that document after having been provided a meaningful opportunity to comply with the police request for it. State v. Terry, 232 N.J. 218, 222 (2018). In this case, defendant parked and exited the vehicle before police could effectuate the stop. The court addresses whether police may initiate a search under this “very narrow” exception when the detained motorist is outside the vehicle when police request the registration certificate, and the officer determines it would be unsafe to allow the motorist to reenter the vehicle to retrieve it.

The court concludes that providing a detained motorist a meaningful opportunity to produce the registration certificate is an indispensable prerequisite to conducting a registration search — one that can only be excused when the motorist is unable or unwilling to comply with the police request for the vehicle credentials. The court holds a motorist is not “unable” to produce a registration certificate within the meaning of the exception when the sole reason for such inability is a police officer’s discretionary decision to prevent reentry. The court reasons that any contrary interpretation of the registration search exception would undermine, if not eviscerate, the protection of privacy rights afforded by the meaningful-opportunity element by leaving its application to the mercy of unreviewable police discretion. The court declines to create a categorical exemption to the meaningful-opportunity requirement when police determine, in the exercise of their discretion, the motorist should not be allowed to reenter the stopped vehicle for reasons of officer safety.

Although the police in this case were permitted for their own safety to place defendant in the police car and prevent him from reentering the detained vehicle throughout the investigative detention, that decision had the effect of foreclosing a warrantless registration search. The court notes that strict enforcement of the meaningful-opportunity prerequisite in these circumstances would not deprive police the ability to investigate whether a car was stolen since they can obtain the information contained in the paper registration certificate by conducting a Motor Vehicle Commission database look-up.

The court also addresses significant recent revisions to N.J.S.A. 39:3-29—the statute that prescribes a motorist’s duty to possess and exhibit a registration certificate to police during a motor vehicle stop and that undergirds the registration search exception to the warrant requirement. Under the revised statutory framework, motorists are no longer required to possess a paper copy of the vehicle registration certificate. Rather, they are now permitted to keep and exhibit the registration certificate in either paper or electronic form.

To avoid the futility and needless privacy intrusion of a physical search for a paper document that may not even exist, and that need not be kept in the vehicle in any event, the court holds, prospectively, that police may not enter a detained vehicle under the authority of the registration search exception to search for a paper document without first asking the motorist whether the registration is kept in paper rather electronic form.

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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