The Inadvertence Requirement From the Plain-View Doctrine

State v. Xiomara Gonzales   November 12, 2016 NJ Supreme Court Decision

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

Gonzales is one of two New Jersey Supreme Court decisions this week outlining a “Plainview doctrine” and the ability of the state to introduce evidence at the time of a suppression hearing or trial. This case involves law enforcement and a motor vehicle stops. The major issue is whether the police were lawfully next to the defendant’s car when they made the initial observations of illegal activity. Was the officer’s observation ‘inadvertent’?

The second case, which we wrote about earlier this week, involves police searching the entire home of a defendant when called to a house for domestic violence allegation. In that case the Court made clear the police’s  responsibility to base their search ‘of the balance of the house’ on objective observations which would heightened their concerned for their safety while in the house and while talking to the alleged domestic violence perpetrator. If the police did not have objective reasons to search the balance of the house in the form of sounds upstairs, screams upstairs, communication that other people were in the house, allegations that the defendant/domestic violence person may be hidden upstairs, they are not allowed to perform a “safety sweep”. As a result, in that case, although the police observes drugs upstairs in a closet, they were not lawfully allowed to be in front of the closet and as a result of those rugs were l suppressed.

In this case the New Jersey Supreme Court reviewed the long-standing plain view doctrine for police observing illegal materials while conducting a motor vehicle stop. The facts of this case are very simple. The defendants, who were under surveillance by a county prosecutors office for drug distribution where are being followed by law-enforcement. As the defendants drove through an intersection they drove through a red light, failed to maintain lane, and failed to put on their blinker when they were effectuating the turn. As a result the law-enforcement personnel pulled the vehicle over for these title 39 motor vehicle violations.  When the law enforcement officer walked up to the driver side car he observed, open and in plain view on the back seat, bags of heroin that had fallen out of a larger bag. Based on his observations he got the defendant out of the vehicle conducted a motor vehicle search saw the balance of the drugs arrested the defendant and search the car further.

At the motion to suppress stage the defendant argued that the police were not lawfully where they were allowed to be because this was a pretextual motor vehicle stop. What that means is the defendant argues that these drug surveillance investigators from the prosecutors office had every intention of pulling the defendant over anyway. Any allegations of a motor vehicle code in fraction didn’t matter because they were going to get pulled over regardless. As a result the law-enforcement observations as he passed the rear driver side door where illegal because the officer was not lawfully where he was allowed to be.The trial court denied the motion to suppress, determining that the plain-view exception to the warrant requirement justified the warrantless seizure of the heroin because Officer Perez (1) was lawfully present beside Gonzales’s car; (2) discovered the heroin “inadvertently” due to the spillage; and (3) had specialized training and experience in narcotics detection that made the incriminating nature of the packaged heroin “immediately apparent” to him. The trial court therefore upheld the constitutionality of the search.

The Appellate Division reversed. Adhering to the plain-view test established in State v. Bruzzese, 94 N.J. 210, 236–38 (1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1030, 104 S. Ct. 1295, 79 L. Ed. 2d 695 (1984), the appellate panel concluded that, because the motor-vehicle stop was a pretext to enable police to seize drugs they knew to be present in Gonzales’s car, Officer Perez’s discovery of the heroin did not meet the inadvertence prong of the plain-view exception. In reaching this conclusion, the panel did not address the fact that, since Bruzzese, the United States Supreme Court has expressly held that the “inadvertent” discovery of incriminating evidence is not a prerequisite for plain-view seizure. The panel also found that exigent circumstances did not justify the search because the police had time to obtain a warrant while pursuing Gonzales’s car.

That specific factor, law-enforcement officer around to be in the specific location, where they make the plain view observation is the linchpin to the acceptability of introducing that evidence observed. In this case the evidence observed was the drugs in the backseat as the officer walked past up to the driver side door.

The trial court suppressed the drugs. The prosecutors office of appealed and took the matter to the New Jersey Appellate Division. There after the matter was appealed the New Jersey Supreme Court. The important factor of the judges’ decision in the NJ Supreme Court is the fact that so long as law-enforcement is properly and legally where they are supposed to be there observations and drugs Cesar from those “plain view “observations will be admissible as evidence in a motion to suppress proceeding and or trial. Although the court room and in the matter to the Appellate Division to address several ancillary issues, the court did expressly state that the police regardless of why they were following these defendants, had legal unlawful basis to pull the defendant over under title 39 of the motor vehicle code. Having awful he pulled the defendant over there walk to the driver side door, done thousands of times every day in this state and states across the country as police are having an initial contact with this defendant and all of the public in motor vehicle stop settings, are allowed to look around and make observations of the inside of a vehicle.  Because this officer lawfully where he was allowed today observed the drugs the introduction of their evidence shall be allowed at future proceedings.

SO why did the Appellate Division and then the NJ Supreme Court take this case???  The argument about why the police officer ‘was where he was, and whether his observations while next to the car were “inadvertent” became the ultimate issue.  Prior to this ruling the plain view doctrine required a three part test.  This ruling threw out the three part test and now we have only two prongs which need to be address by law enforcement, and their evidence must be supported by ‘objective’ evidence not the police’s subjective thoughts which can not be measured by any specific  criteria.  The Court now excises the inadvertence requirement from the plain-view doctrine. The Court finds subjective inquiry into an officer’s motives to be at odds with the standard of objective reasonableness that applies to a police officer’s conduct under the New Jersey Constitution. The Court notes that the constitutional limiting principle of the plain-view doctrine is that the officer must lawfully be in the area where he observed and seized the item, and that it must be immediately apparent that the seized item is evidence of a crime. Because the Court sets forth a new rule of law, the Court will apply the reformulated plain-view doctrine prospectively.

The Court provides guidance as to the limits of the plain-view exception and the continuing need to obtain a warrant when there is sufficient time to do so.

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

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