On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Hudson County.
Lora, Seidman and Milmed.
Defendants were indicted for bringing stolen property into the State (N.J.S.A. 2A:119-9), receiving a stolen vehicle (N.J.S.A. 2A:139-3), and possession of motor vehicles with altered serial numbers (N.J.S.A. 2A:127-3). They moved before trial to suppress evidence seized in a warrantless search. Following a hearing the trial judge ordered the suppression of the evidence, consisting of two "vehicles" which are the subject of the indictment. We granted the State's motion for leave to appeal.
The testimony at the suppression hearing revealed that on May 7, 1976 a Kearney police officer on foot patrol, who had received information from an informant concerning two vehicles at an automobile body shop located on his beat, owned by defendant De Marco, confirmed by observation that there were two Chevrolet Blazers in the shop, one black and the other gold. He informed the detective bureau "that I had received word that they were stolen vehicles and were in the process of having the numbers changed on them." Later that day two Kearney detectives, accompanied by two inspectors from the Division of Motor Vehicles, went to the shop. The inspectors requested DeMarco to produce "the ownership
papers" for the vehicles in question. When DeMarco failed to do so they impounded the vehicles and had them towed away for investigation by the State Police Auto Squad.
The basis for the trial judge's determination to suppress the evidence was that
The trial judge further held that the Motor Vehicle Act could not "give license to the police to enter upon a person's business property, commence a search of a motor vehicle to determine whether or not that motor vehicle is one that has been previously stolen or for any other reasons." Apart from this, he found that the gold Blazer was not in operable condition and for that reason was not a motor vehicle as defined in the Motor Vehicle Act, N.J.S.A. 39:1-1. He made no finding with respect to the operability of the black Blazer.
The State contends that the trial court erred in (1) deciding that the two Chevrolet Blazers were not motor vehicles, and (2) finding that N.J.S.A. 39:10-6 does not apply to private property.
N.J.S.A. 39:10-6, to the extent pertinent here, requires every person to have in his possession in this State for each motor vehicle a certificate of ownership therefor and the registration certificate, and to produce either the certificate of ownership or the registration certificate upon demand by the commissioner or a motor vehicle inspector. If none is produced, the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles or motor vehicle inspector "may seize and take possession of the motor vehicle and hold and dispose of it in accordance with Section 39:10-21 of this Title." It is further provided that when a motor vehicle is in the possession of a garage keeper, motor vehicle dealer or service station, the production of a writing signed
by the person delivering possession of the vehicle, stating that he is the owner or entitled to the possession of the motor vehicle and has the requisite proof of ownership shall be deemed a compliance with the section.
Were it not for the involvement of N.J.S.A. 39:10-6, there could be no doubt that the seizure of the two "vehicles" without a warrant would have been clearly unreasonable and illegal. The record does not indicate that the information which led to the entry into the body shop came from a reliable informant. Moreover, even after the detectives and inspectors entered the shop, they did not have probable cause to believe that a crime was being committed, at least not until the owner failed to produce proof ...