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State v. Cuellar

Decided: March 17, 1986.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MARLON S. CUELLAR, CARLOS A. MEDINA, DEFENDANTS



Menza, J.s.c.

Menza

This is a motion to suppress. The question in this case is whether the removal of an automobile seat and door panel pursuant to a search incident to an arrest violates the permissible scope of a search authorized by the Supreme Court in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 101 S. Ct. 2860, 69 L. Ed. 2d 768 (1981).

Defendants are the driver and passenger of an automobile which was stopped by a police officer for speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike. The driver was asked for his credentials and while he was searching for them in the glove compartment, the police officer observed a switchblade knife in the compartment in plain view. The police officer thereupon ordered defendants to exit the vehicle and searched them. A search of one defendant revealed a small vial of suspected cocaine. The police officer then placed both defendants under arrest, handcuffed and placed them in the police vehicle. He then commenced a search of the interior of the automobile incidental to the arrest. In the course of the search the police officer pulled the rear seat forward about two feet in order to look underneath, at which time he noticed that a wall panel situated under the arm rest of the automobile appeared to "pop out." The police officer then removed the seat entirely from the automobile, which exposed the entire panel, and pulled away the panel for the chassis. Using his flashlight, the officer made an observation of the area behind the panel and discovered a package in a well between the metal chassis and the frame of the car, which he suspected to be CDS.*fn1

The area in which the drugs were found was not accessible without the seat first being removed and the wall panel pulled outward.

Defendant contends that the search exceeded the permissible scope authorized in Belton. In Belton, the Supreme Court delineated the permissible area of an automobile that could be searched incident to a lawful arrest and the rationale for that holding.

While the Chimel [ v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S. Ct. 2034, 23 L. Ed. 2d 685 case established that a search incident to an arrest may not stray beyond the area within the immediate control of the arrestee, courts have found no workable definition of "the area within the immediate control of the arrestee" when that area arguably includes the interior of an automobile and the arrestee is its recent occupant. Our reading of the cases suggests the generalization that articles inside the relatively narrow compass of the passenger compartment of an automobile are in fact generally, if not inevitably, within "the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary ite[m]." [Citation omitted] In order to establish the workable rule this category of cases requires, we read Chimel's definition of the limits of the area that may be searched in light of that generalization. Accordingly, we hold that when a policeman has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, he may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that automobile.*fn2 [453 U.S. at 460, 101 S. Ct. at 2864; footnote omitted]

There is no doubt that under Belton, those areas that are readily accessible to a passenger in the compartment area of an automobile are included within the scope of the permissible search. Thus, the front and rear seats of an automobile, U.S. v. Enriquez, 675 F.2d 98 (5 Cir.1982), the floor area including under the floor mats, Thomas v. State, 415 So. 2d 1246 (Ala.Crim.App.1982), the glove compartment, State v. Bell, 195 N.J. Super. 49, 58-59 (App.Div.1984), an ashtray, Russell v. State,

644 S.W. 2d 554 (Tex.Crim.App.1982), the hatchback area of an automobile, U.S. v. Russell, 670 F.2d 323 (D.C.Cir.1982), and any closed containers that could be opened with a minimum effort, State v. Evans, 181 N.J. Super. 455 (App.Div.1981); State v. Kearny, 183 N.J. Super. 13 (App.Div.1981), are all included in the area that is permitted to be searched. The specific question that is presented in this case is whether those areas of the automobile passenger compartment which are not readily accessible to a passenger are similarly encompassed in the court's opinion.

There does not appear to be any cases which address this precise issue. The commentaries are helpful.

In his treatise on searches and seizures, Professor LaFave suggests that for the purposes of the Belton rule, a passenger compartment includes "all space reachable without exiting the vehicle, without regard to the likelihood in the particular case that such a reaching was possible." LaFave pointedly distinguishes these accessible areas from areas that would require some dismantling of the vehicle, such as a door panel interior or other places to which there is "virtually no chance an arrestee would have acquired access." 2 LaFave, Search and Seizure: A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment, ยง 7.1 at 218-219 and n. 46.19 (Supp.1986).

In another commentary analyzing Belton, the author reaches the conclusion that the permissible scope of the search authorized by the Supreme Court excludes not only the trunk of the automobile, but also any locked containers located within the passenger compartment of the vehicle. He, therefore, reasons that any areas of the passenger compartment which ...


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