For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford, Schreiber, Handler and Pollock. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Clifford, J.
[87 NJ Page 563] The principal issue presented by this appeal, as in the companion case of State v. Alston, 87 N.J. 531, also decided today, involves the level of exigent circumstances sufficient to justify a warrantless search of an automobile under the automobile exception to the Warrant Clause, Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 45 S. Ct. 280, 69 L. Ed. 543 (1925). In Alston, supra, the police stopped defendants' vehicle on the open highway for traveling in excess of the legal speed limit and conducted a search at the scene of the stop when it became apparent that the vehicle contained dangerous weapons. In the instant case the police actively sought a certain automobile believed to be an instrumentality used in a freshly-committed armed robbery. The vehicle was promptly discovered unoccupied and parked in a lot near the scene of the crime. With the robbers still at large, the vehicle was seized and removed to the local police station where officers conducted a warrantless search yielding evidence that ultimately led to defendants' convictions for armed robbery. We affirm those convictions and hold that the search of the car was justified as falling within the
automobile exception as applied by the Supreme Court in Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 90 S. Ct. 1975, 26 L. Ed. 2d 419 (1970), and by this Court in State v. LaPorte, 62 N.J. 312 (1973).
In the early morning hours of June 3, 1977 two employees and the boyfriend of an employee were closing Friendly's Ice Cream Store in South Plainfield. The store manager had departed at midnight. As one of the store employees was preparing to leave at about 1:25 a.m., he observed a light-colored, woodpaneled Ford LTD station wagon parked next to his car. As he entered his vehicle, he was accosted by a man whom he had seen get out of the station wagon. Brandishing a handgun partially concealed by a cloth, the man shoved the employee in the direction of the store, where they were joined by the assailant's accomplice. The two captors then forced the employee to knock on the store window and pretend to have forgotten something. When the door was opened, the two men forced their way into the store behind the employee. Once inside, the robbers stole $1500 from the store's safe, plus cash, jewelry and personal belongings from the purse of one of the employees. The robbers then locked the three occupants in an anteroom and fled by the back door of the store. After only ten minutes of confinement, the imprisoned escaped and telephoned police.
South Plainfield police officer Joseph Franchak, one of two officers who initially responded to the call, promptly obtained a description of the robbers and of the Ford LTD station wagon. The vehicle apparently had been parked outside the store for several hours before the robbery, as the manager later testified that he had observed the same vehicle parked in the rear of the store when he arrived for work at approximately 10 o'clock that night.
The vehicle's description was relayed to police in neighboring Plainfield, where two officers stopped a station wagon corresponding to the described vehicle. As the station wagon slowed
to a halt, one of its occupants jumped from the car and fled. The officers did not give chase but rather conducted an identification and vehicle credentials check of the two remaining occupants. After completing the credentials check and conducting a brief search of the vehicle that revealed no weapons or contraband, the police allowed the station wagon to go on its way.
Upon conferring with their immediate superior, however, the Plainfield officers were instructed to relocate the station wagon. They found it about twenty minutes later in the parking lot of a housing project only a few blocks from the spot where the initial stop had been made. The store manager of Friendly's and the employee who had been accosted in the store's parking lot, both of whom had seen the station wagon and had described it to the police, were taken to the scene, where both identified the vehicle as the same one that previously had been parked outside the store.
Officer Franchak, one of the original investigating officers from South Plainfield, peered through the rear windows of the station wagon with a flashlight and observed a gallon-can of paint, a paint-stained white glove and some paint-stained clothes. Franchak recalled that one of the robbery victims had told police that when he had been grabbed around the head by one of the robbers, he observed that on the man's hand was a white glove stained with blood or paint. That glove had been found by police just outside the rear door of the store. Believing that the glove in the back of the parked station wagon was the mate of the glove found outside the store, and suspecting that this was the vehicle involved in the robbery, Officer Franchak had the station wagon towed to police headquarters in South Plainfield, where it was searched without a warrant.
The search produced the paint-stained white glove, a gallon can of green paint, and a blue washcloth. One of the store's employees subsequently identified the washcloth as the one the gunman had used to conceal the robbery weapon. A state police ...