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State v. Roberson

Decided: March 8, 1978.


Halpern, Larner and King. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, J.A.D.


[156 NJSuper Page 552] This case raises questions concerning the legality of the seizure of a motor vehicle following the owner's arrest for motor vehicle code violations, and the permissible scope of the police inventory search following

impoundment. Defendant was convicted of unlawful possession of stolen goods. He appeals, asserting that the trial judge erred in refusing to suppress evidence, the stolen goods discovered in the locked trunk of his vehicle, following his arrest for driving without insurance while his operator's license was suspended.

At noon on May 19, 1975 Detective DeMarco and Officer Ferrara of the Newark Police Department stopped a 1964 Buick operated by defendant at 15th Avenue and South 10th Street in the City of Newark. DeMarco had arrested defendant one month before for driving without insurance, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-29 and the Compulsory Motor Vehicle Insurance Law, L. 1972, c. 197; N.J.S.A. 39:6B-1 and 2. DeMarco appeared in court at the hearing on this charge and therefore knew defendant's driving privileges had been suspended. N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2 mandates a six-month suspension of driving privileges for a first violation of operating without liability insurance.

In response to the officers' request, defendant produced a driver's license and registration, but did not produce an insurance identification card as required by the statute. Based on the two violations, no insurance card and driving while suspended, defendant was placed under arrest, put in the squad car and driven to police headquarters. One of the officers drove defendant's car to headquarters. At headquarters defendant claimed to have valid liability insurance, but the officers' check with his alleged carrier revealed this claim to be untrue. Defendant was then booked for operating a vehicle without insurance and while on the suspended list. Following the booking the officers conducted a standard inventory search of the vehicle before towing it to the impound site. During the inventory search the police discovered a key to the locked trunk in an ashtray in the car. The inventory search of the trunk revealed five tires and an attache case. These items were later traced to a vehicle which had been stolen, stripped and abandoned in Newark the day before. Defendant was convicted of possession of the stolen tires and

attache case and now appeals, claiming this evidence was the product of an unconstitutional search in violation of his federal and state rights.

Defendant attacks the validity of the search of the trunk and the seizure of the stolen property on several grounds. He first contends the police should not have arrested him but should have merely issued a traffic summons pursuant to R. 7:6-1(a). He next contends that the police had no right to impound the vehicle for these motor vehicle offenses. He finally contends that, even assuming the arrest and the impoundment were proper, the inventory search was excessive in scope, and the police had no right to go into the locked trunk. We disagree and affirm the denial of the motion to suppress.

The officers possessed the statutory authority to arrest defendant without a warrant pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:5-25, which states in pertinent part:

Any * * * police officer * * * may, without a warrant, arrest any person violating in his presence any provision of chapter three of this Title * * *

The officers observed defendant violating two provisions of Chapter 3 of Title 39, failing to have an insurance card in his possession, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-29, and driving a vehicle while his license was suspended, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-40. The officer also has discretion under the statute to serve a summons instead of arresting the offender. Defendant contends that R. 7:6-1(a) which states:

In cases involving violations of statutes or ordinances relating to the operation or use of motor vehicles, * * *, the complaint and summons shall be a uniform traffic ticket in the form prescribed by the Administrative Director of the Courts.

compels the arresting officer to issue a summons and does not permit an arrest to be made. While in most traffic violations the police ...

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