The opinion of the court was delivered by: Spatola
The threshold issue in this case is the constitutionality of a law enforcement officer's random computer check of a motor vehicle's registration. In this drug possession case, the two co-defendants had filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained after their motor vehicle was stopped based on the results of such an initial registration check. The defendants claim this stop was unlawful and violated their state and federal constitutional rights. *fn1 This court denied the motion and, thereafter, the two co-defendants pled guilty to various drug-related charges. This is an amplification of this court's opinion on this novel issue.
The facts in this case are as follows: On April 28, 1994, at 9:42 PM, police officer Russell Yeager was on duty alone in uniform and in a marked unit in the vicinity of North and Morse Avenues in Fanwood. He was driving eastbound on North Avenue behind a Ford Escort when he ran a random computer "registration check" on the car ahead of him. He testified that the motor vehicle's license plate came back as being registered to a Ford Tempo, not to an Escort. He ran this check again and then executed a motor vehicle stop once he had gotten the same report that the license plate did not match the car.
Officer Yeager exited his car and, as he approached the driver's side of the Escort, he saw the front seat passenger, later identified as co-defendant, Lawrence Myrick, reach behind the driver's seat. He described the person's movements as "furtive," "sudden," and "quick."
Officer Yeager asked for the female driver's credentials and although a license in the name of Nicole L. Frazier was produced, no proof of insurance nor registration was produced. The driver was later identified as co-defendant, Lashon Green, not Nicole L. Frazier. The officer ordered this driver to step out of the car and took her to the rear of the motor vehicle. *fn2
Meanwhile, Officer Yeager observed that the passenger was moving around in the vehicle and was looking around at him. Yeager testified that, at this point, he became concerned for his own safety. He further testified that since the driver was wearing tight pants, he could see she was not secreting a weapon on her but, he had not been able to see what the passenger may have put behind the driver's seat. Because of this and Myrick's sudden jerky motions and furtive gestures as he had approached the motor vehicle, Officer Yeager ordered him to exit the car.
Officer Yeager testified that as Myrick exited the motor vehicle, he "bladed" his body, *fn3 but was observed placing a white object in his front left shirt pocket. Yeager first asked Myrick what he placed behind the passenger seat. Myrick replied "nothing." Officer Yeager then read Myrick his Miranda rights and asked him what he had just placed in his pocket. Myrick then replied "I didn't put nothing in my pocket."
Officer Yeager was, however, able to see into Myrick's pocket and observed what appeared to be a controlled dangerous substance, based on his formal and on-the-job training in six years as a police officer in Newark and Fanwood, New Jersey. The items were retrieved and proved to be a white paper towel containing is glassine envelopes of suspected heroin.
Once back at police headquarters another registration check was performed and this time the vehicle identification number of this Ford Escort did come back as registered to this license plate.
In its suppression motion, the defense argued that the CDS found on Myrick's person should be considered "fruits of the poisonous tree," pursuant to Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 485-86, 83 S. Ct. 407, 9 L. Ed. 2d 441, (1963), because the initial motor vehicle stop was improper and, therefore, violative of the co-defendants' constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, paragraph 7, of the New Jersey Constitution. The defense contended, that the sole basis for this stop was the random computer check conducted by the officer. The defense contended that the police officer had no probable cause to perform such a computer check and noted the absence of any evidence that the vehicle in question was violating any motor vehicle law, either by its condition or mode of operation.
The State countered that this particular motor vehicle stop was proper because the police officer had an articulable and reasonable suspicion that the motor vehicle was in violation of the motor vehicle laws of the State by having the wrong license plates. Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. at 663 *fn4; see also State v. Murphy, 238 N.J. Super. 546, 553, 570 A.2d 451 (App. Div. 1990) (cataloguing federal and New Jersey cases upholding stops based on motor vehicle violations).
The issue of whether a random computer check of a motor vehicle's registration is a violation of an individual's constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution *fn5 or Article I, paragraph 7, of the New ...