NJ permits limited search of the console when the def makes a half-hearted attempt to locate the papers for the vehicle

New Jersey again permits a limited search of the console [and likely glove compartment] when the defendant makes a half-hearted attempt to locate the papers for the vehicle. This is a limited search for the papers only, which would be expected to be there, but a plain view of drugs here was permissible. State v. Hamlett, 2017 N.J. Super. LEXIS 28 (March 3, 2017):

The Court has recognized that in certain situations, police officers have the authority to conduct limited warrantless searches of a vehicle in order to produce proof of ownership and insurance. In State v. Pena-Flores, 198 N.J. 6, 31 (2009), for example, the Court held that after stopping the defendant for a traffic violation and finding discrepancies between information from a computer lookup of the license plate and the actual car, police were “entitled, separate and apart from the automobile exception, to look into the areas in the vehicle in which evidence of ownership might be expected to be found.” In State v. Patino, 83 N.J. 1, 12 (1980), the Court recognized that following a traffic violation, “a search of the vehicle for evidence connected with that violation” was permissible if “reasonable in scope and tailored to the degree of the violation.” In State v. Boykins, 50 N.J. 73, 77 (1967), the Court noted that “if the operator is unable to produce proof of registration, the officer may search the car for evidence of ownership . . . .”

Undoubtedly, we have cautioned against an overly-broad reading of Boykins. In State v. Lark, 319 N.J. Super. 618, 621-22 (App. Div. 1999), aff’d 163 N.J. 294 (2000), the defendant was stopped for a minor traffic offense and provided a valid registration for the car, but could not produce his driver’s license. The defendant was ordered out of the car and searched; he had no identification on his person. Id. at 622. The police officer then opened the car door to search for the defendant’s license or identification and observed a bag containing drug paraphernalia, which he seized. Ibid. He then returned to the car to continue the search, ultimately finding a significant amount of cocaine. Ibid.

. . .

Unlike Keaton, where the responding officer never attempted to speak to the defendant who was conscious and being treated at the scene for minor injuries, here Officer Heintz gave defendant an opportunity to produce his license, registration, proof of insurance, and the car rental agreement. Defendant was unable to provide Heintz with these credentials and instead produced only an expired state-issued identification card and an owner’s manual. Defendant’s failure to produce the documents required under N.J.S.A. 39:3-29 triggered the “documents” exception to the warrant requirement as articulated in Keaton, supra, 222 N.J. at 442-43. While defendant ostensibly was willing to acquire the necessary documents, his phone call to his girlfriend nevertheless failed to establish that he was able to produce them. No evidence in the record suggests that Boyd ever responded [*18] or that the car’s rental agreement or registration were ever produced. Therefore, Heintz was justified in initiating a search for defendant’s credentials.

Furthermore, as Judge Baker aptly noted, Heintz did not exceed the permissible scope of a search for driving credentials when he opened the center console of the vehicle. A center console is a relatively non-private area in which documentation “might normally be kept.” Patino, supra, 83 N.J. at 12. We also note that the judge specifically found that defendant “did not thoroughly search the center console.” Rather, Heintz “observed [defendant] open and immediately shut the center console, [and] it seems, to me, if somebody was really looking for documents, they would have opened the center console and gone in there and moved stuff around. That’s not what [defendant] did.”

Once Heintz opened the center console he visually observed the drugs that were stored there. Those items were properly seized under the plain view exception to the search warrant requirement. …

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