On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For reversal and reinstatement -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford, Schreiber, Handler and Pollock. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Pashman, J.
At issue in this case is the legality under the Fourth Amendment of the federal Constitution and Article 1, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution of a roadside search of a suitcase taken from defendant's car. Defendant was stopped by State Police for erratic driving and eventually placed under arrest. Subsequently, the police searched his car and a locked suitcase lying on the back seat. Inside the suitcase they found two bags of cocaine.
In United States v. Chadwick, 433 U.S. 1, 97 S. Ct. 2476, 53 L. Ed. 2d 538 (1977), and Arkansas v. Sanders, 442 U.S. 753, 99 S. Ct. 2586, 61 L. Ed. 2d 235 (1979), the United States Supreme Court held generally that absent exigent circumstances police could not, consistently with the Fourth Amendment, conduct a warrantless search of luggage found in an automobile. The State contends, however, that Chadwick and Sanders should not be applied retroactively to invalidate this search, which occurred before the dates of those decisions. We agree with the State's contention. Furthermore, unlike in State v. Patino, 83 N.J. 1 (1980), we find that the circumstances in this case gave the police adequate probable cause to conduct the search. Accordingly, the search was legal at the time it occurred and the evidence derived therefrom need not have been suppressed.
On the afternoon of January 5, 1977 a State trooper observed a 1975 Chevrolet with Ohio license plates traveling at an unusually
slow speed on Route 3 in Clifton. The trooper stopped the automobile to investigate the reason for the abnormal driving and to check the driver's license and registration. Defendant, the only occupant of the car, informed the trooper that the car did not belong to him. He displayed an Ohio driver's license and proceeded to look in the glove compartment for the registration of the car.
At this time, the trooper moved to the passenger side of the car and peered inside. He noticed what he believed to be a partially consumed marijuana cigarette in plain view on the floor of the passenger side. He also noticed a New Jersey driver's license in the glove compartment, which upon further inspection turned out to be blank. The trooper then called for additional help and arrested defendant for possession of marijuana and a counterfeit driver's license.
Upon his arrest, defendant stepped out of the car carrying an overnight bag. The trooper patted down the defendant's clothing, discovering $9,700 in cash inside a pocket, and searched the overnight bag, finding various pills.*fn1 He continued to search the whole car and discovered a leather suitcase on the back seat. Upon inquiry, defendant denied ownership or knowledge of the suitcase.
A second State trooper then arrived at the scene to assist in the arrest. He proceeded to search the car again, still without a warrant, and removed the suitcase from the back seat. Finding it locked with a combination lock, he nevertheless tried a succession of three-number combinations until he hit upon the right number and opened the suitcase. Inside he found a woman's purse and, looking further inside the purse, he found two bags of white powder later identified as cocaine.
Defendant was indicted for possession of cocaine and desoxyn (count one) and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute (count two). He made a pretrial motion to suppress the State's use of the cocaine against him on the ground that it was the product of an illegal warrantless search. The trial court denied the motion. Subsequently, defendant pleaded guilty to count two of the indictment pursuant to a plea bargain. The other count and several disorderly person charges were dismissed. The trial court sentenced defendant to ten to twelve years in State Prison for the conviction on possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court's judgment entered on the denial of the motion to suppress and vacated the conviction and guilty plea. The reversal was based on the Supreme Court decisions in United ...