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State v. Boykins

Decided: July 20, 1967.


For reversal -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall and Schettino. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Weintraub, C.J.


Defendant, indicted for possession of a narcotic drug, obtained a pretrial order suppressing evidence obtained by a search of an automobile in which he was a passenger. The Appellate Division granted leave to appeal and affirmed the order. We granted the State's petition for certification. 48 N.J. 448 (1967).

At 8:45 P.M. on September 14, 1965 two detectives in plain clothes, riding in an unmarked car, saw an automobile with four men, of whom defendant was one, proceeding along Bergen Street in the City of Newark at a high speed and in a reckless manner. Because of a red light defendant's car stopped 50 to 75 feet short of the intersection of Bergen Street with 18th Avenue. The detectives drew up on the left, identified themselves as police officers, and directed the driver to pull to the curb. The driver said he would, but when the light changed, "he took off with his wheels screeching," swerving toward the police car in an effort to hit it, and then made a right turn into 18th Avenue. The police car had to be pulled sharply to the left to avoid the collision. The officers took up the chase at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour. The police siren was turned on and shots were fired in the air and then at the car to disable it. Defendant's car narrowly missed two pedestrians, who had to climb a parked automobile "like a squirrel climbing a tree." The car turned into Jelliff Avenue "on two wheels * * * managed to right itself and then came to a sudden stop" on the wrong side of the street, at the Waverly Freight Yards. Defendant, who was in a rear seat, and two others fled from the car, and stopped only after warning shots were fired. Other police cars, summoned during the chase, converged on the scene within a minute. Defendant became violent; it took four officers to confine him to a police car.

The fourth occupant of defendant's car, a passenger in the front, was dead at the scene. We gather that it was later determined that he had been hit by a bullet fired by the pursuing officers. The officers did not suggest they thought

they were dealing with a homicide, and hence we will not consider that circumstance in deciding the issue before us. At the same time, it is irrelevant whether the shooting was warranted, and of course that matter was not tried.

Defendant and the others were searched on the spot. The search of defendant revealed nothing, and we gather that the search of the other men also produced no evidence of criminal involvement. But a search of the car, made at the scene while defendant and his companions were still there, revealed an open knife under the front seat on the driver's side and a brown manila envelope on the floor on the passenger's side. The envelope contained marijuana.

In granting the motion to suppress the trial court discounted the claim that the driver of the fleeing car tried to commit an assault and battery in swerving toward the officers' car. The trial court then found that although the testimony warranted an arrest for speeding, N.J.S.A. 39:4-98; reckless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-96; or careless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-97, an arrest for such traffic violations would not justify the search of the automobile. The trial court relied upon State v. Scanlon, 84 N.J. Super. 427 (App. Div. 1964), which held that an arrest for a broken taillight and for failure of the operator to have his driver's license with him, would not support a search of the vehicle.

Noting that a search could be made as an incident to an arrest if reasonably necessary to protect the arresting officer from attack, to prevent escape, or to prevent destruction of evidence (84 N.J. Super., at pp. 434-435), the trial court found no basis for the search in the present case because the occupants were no longer in the car and in fact were securely handcuffed by the time the vehicle was searched, even though the time interval was no more than minutes. And while apparently recognizing that the behavior of the defendant and his companions was strongly suggestive of involvement in crime, the trial court emphasized that the State was not able to point to any specific criminal event, known to the officers at the time of arrest. On that ground the trial court held

inapplicable our decision in State v. Fioravanti, 46 N.J. 109 (1965), certiorari denied 384 U.S. 919, 86 S. Ct. 1365, 16 L. Ed. 2 d 440 (1966).

The Appellate Division affirmed on the basis of the trial court's opinion.

Surely not every traffic violation will justify a search of every part of the vehicle. See, generally, annotation, 10 A.L.R. 3 d 314 (1966). A traffic violation as such will justify a search for things related to it. So, for example, if the operator is unable to produce proof of registration, the officer may search the car for evidence of ownership, People v. Prochnau, 59 Cal. Rptr. 265 (Ct. App. 1967); Draper v. State of Maryland, 265 F. Supp. 718 (D. Md. 1967); or if the officer has reason to believe the driver is under the influence of liquor or drugs, he may search the car for alcohol or narcotics, State v. Parker, 81 Idaho 51, 336 P. 2 d 318 (Sup. Ct. 1959); People v. Jackson, 241 Cal. App. 2 d 189, 50 Cal. Rptr. 437 (Dist. Ct. App. 1966). The State argues before us that the search here made ...

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