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State v. Gammons

Decided: February 23, 1971.


Conford, Kolovsky and Carton. The opinion of the court was delivered by Kolovsky, J.A.D. Conford, P.J.A.D. (dissenting).


[113 NJSuper Page 435] The State appeals, upon leave granted, from an order suppressing evidence, a revolver found by the police in the glove compartment of defendant's automobile.

The trial court ruled that the police had conducted an "unreasonable search and seizure." However, we conclude that in the factual circumstances of this case, as found by the trial court, the police officers' procedures and their search of defendant's automobile were justified and reasonable. We therefore reverse.

In making its findings of fact, the trial court gave full credence to the testimony of the police officers involved, Officers Hall and Machnik.

On the day in question, defendant's Cadillac automobile collided with a Union Township police car. Officer Hall and another officer were dispatched to the scene to investigate the accident. By the time Hall arrived defendant had already been removed to a hospital. After investigating the accident, obtaining the names of witnesses and drawing a diagram of the scene, Hall went to the hospital and spoke to defendant. Although defendant said that both his driver's license and the registration certificate were in his wallet, only the driver's license was there. Hall then telephoned police headquarters and told the dispatcher, Officer Machnik, that defendant did not have the registration certificate and that "possibly" it was still in the car.

Machnik informed his superior officer and eventually suggested that the police towing service, which was taking defendant's disabled car to a service station, first bring the car to police headquarters. This was done. Machnik entered the car, removed the keys from the ignition and opened the locked glove compartment intending only, as the court found, to look for the registration certificate. The certificate was not there but the glove compartment did contain a fully loaded five-shot revolver. Shortly thereafter Officer Donnelly, who had accompanied Machnik to the car, found the registration certificate among some debris on the car floor.

In our view, the action taken by the police officers was proper and there is no basis for characterizing their search as unreasonable. "It is unreasonableness which is the Fourth

Amendment's standard." Wyman v. James , 400 U.S. 309 91 S. Ct. 381, 386, 27 L. Ed. 2d 408 (1971).

The police officers were obligated to investigate the accident and submit a written report with respect thereto. N.J.S.A. 39:4-131. That obligation required, among other things, that they procure and examine not only the licenses issued to the drivers of the vehicles but also the registrations of the automobiles involved. By law, N.J.S.A. 39:3-29, the driver's license and registration certificate are required to be in the possession of the driver at all times and to be exhibited upon request to a police officer so that he may determine, among other things, the "correctness of the registration certificate, as it relates to the registration number and number plates of the motor vehicle for which it was issued."

The validity of the statutory requirement is evident. Indeed, it has been held that the police practice of establishing roadblocks or other temporary stoppage of automobiles on the highway "for license and motor vehicle registration checks [is not] an illegal invasion of the motorists right of privacy, contrary to the provisions of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Art. I, par. 7 of the Constitution of New Jersey" and that such practice "represents a valid exercise of the State's police power in furtherance of the State's legitimate interest." State v. Kabayama , 98 N.J. Super. 85, 87-88 (App. Div. 1967), aff'd o.b. 52 N.J. 507 (1968).

When defendant could not produce his registration certificate at the hospital, Officer Hall made the perfectly logical deduction that it might still be in the damaged car which the police had the right to search for evidence of ownership in view of defendant's failure to produce the certificate. State v. Boykins , 50 N.J. 73, 77 (1967); People v. Prochnau , 251 Cal. App. 2d 22, 59 Cal. Rptr. 265, 270 (D. Ct. App. 1967).

Machnik, in turn, looked for the registration in the glove compartment, the logical place to look. ...

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