February 14, 1995
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFFS,
LAWRENCE MYRICK AND LASHON GREEN, DEFENDANTS.
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 Jersey Constitution *fn6, is one of first impression in New Jersey.
Underlying Article I, paragraph 7, of the New Jersey Constitution is the premise that there is a zone of privacy wherein all individuals expect that what they say or do will be protected from unreasonable government intrusion. New Jersey requires that this expectation of privacy be reasonable. State v. Hempele, supra, 120 N.J. at 200. *fn7
A search has been defined by our courts as "an invasion, a quest with some sort of force, either actual or constructive", State v. Roman, 182 N.J. Super. 297, 299, 440 A.2d 1155 (App. Div. 1982), certif. denied, 89 N.J. 431 (1982), or "an exploratory investigation and prying into hidden places for that which is concealed." State v. Anglada, 144 N.J. Super. 358, 361, 365 A.2d 720 (App. Div. 1976). *fn8 However, Article I, paragraph 7, of the New Jersey Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provide "no protection for what a person knowingly exposes to the public . ..." State v. Bates, 202 N.J. Super. 416, 427, 495 A.2d 422 (App.Div. 1985). *fn9
Here the visual inspection of defendant's motor vehicle license plate and the ensuing computer check, did not constitute a search and seizure subject to constitutional protection. For this visual inspection to have constituted a "search," a defendant must have had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area searched. This court is convinced that the defendant's expectation of privacy in the license plate was minimal because license plates mounted on the front and rear of a motor vehicle are constantly exposed to public view. Bates, 202 N.J. Super. at 426-27 (there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in the soles of the defendant's shoes); State v. Foy, 146 N.J. Super. 378, 386, 369 A.2d 995 (Law Div. 1976) (there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in the facial features of the defendant, and thus, an identification line-up was not a search); see also United States v. Walraven, 892 F.2d 972, 974 (10th Cir. 1989) ("Because they are in plain view, no privacy interest exists in license plates.").
If this visual inspection of the license plates is not considered an event protected by the federal or state institution, the subsequent registration check of the plate should not be considered a search either. The computer check did not intrude on the legitimate privacy interests of either the defendant's person or the motor vehicle she was operating. This court believes that the flaw in the defense counsel's argument is that it treats a routine registration check on a computer as a Fourth Amendment event. In order for this to be the case, there would have to be some privacy interest that society deems worthy of protection. As discussed, however, license plates are publicly displayed on the front and back of motor vehicles in this State. They are there for all the world to see, including the world of law enforcement. There are legitimate safety concerns revolving around the use of cars as modes of transport and, thus license plates afford the public in general with the means of identification, for example, after an accident.
Here, Officer Yeager did not initiate the vehicle stop until the computer check created an articulable suspicion that the defendants were violating a motor vehicle law. Therefore, the motor vehicle stop in this case was proper. *fn10
Since this is a case of first impression in New Jersey, this court has researched caselaw in other jurisdictions. In State v. Willis, 1992 WL 324301, 1 (Ohio App. 2 Dist. 1992), *fn11 the Ohio Court of Appeals held:
We view the sole issue in this case to be whether the random check of the defendant's license plate prior to the investigative stop violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition "against unreasonable searches and seizures."
Ordinarily a seizure involves the physical taking of physical property. We think it is reasonably clear that no seizure is involved in the check of a license plate number.
It follows that the issue is further narrowed to whether the check of the license plate was an unreasonable search.
It was stipulated that the arresting officer observed the license plate while the defendant's motor vehicle was on a public street.
Under these circumstances the defendant had no expectation of privacy in his license numbers, State v. Ronald Fike (Mar. 29, 1984), Cuyahoga App. No. 47267, unreported. . . .
In our view neither a search nor a seizure was involved in the license check in this case. State v. Owens, 75 Ohio App.3d 523, 599 N.E.2d 859.
In another Ohio case citing Willis, State v. Stamper, 1993 WL 32029, 1 (Ohio App. 2 Dist. 1993), the appellate court held that
it was constitutionally permissible for Patrolman Rhea to check the license plate number that he observed on the vehicle operated by Stamper. In other words, Patrolman Rhea was not required to have a reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity to simply check the license plate number on the vehicle operated by Stamper. Random traffic stops involve an intrusion for which there must be some justification. A random check of a license plate number involves no intrusion, and thus requires no justification.
In State v. Bates, 1987 WL 15817, 1 (Ohio App. 1987), the court of appeals reversed the trial court's grant of a suppression motion and held that
one does not have any expectation of privacy in a license plate number which is required to be openly displayed on his vehicle. Moreover, a scan of a computer data bank, in order to obtain information relevant to the license number, involves no intrusion. Such a "search" does not interrupt a driver in his travel, nor restrain his person or detain him. In sum, it does not constitute a "stop" under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889, 88 S. Ct. 1868 (1968). *fn12
Furthermore, the defense argues that the stop in this case was improper because the initial computer reports notifying the police officer of a discrepancy between the car's plates and the registration were erroneous. A third computer check, subsequently made at the police headquarters, did indeed correct the error and ultimately matched the plates and the vehicle. The defense argues that, even though the police officer relied upon the first two erroneous reports, there is no "good-faith" exception to the warrant requirement in New Jersey. State v. Novembrino, 105 N.J. 95 at 96, 519 A.2d 820 (1987).
However, since this was not an event implicating the defendants' Fourth Amendment interests, the issue of the officer's "good-faith" is irrelevant.
Accordingly, the police officer's visual inspection and computer check of a motor vehicle's registration number were lawful. The subsequent motor vehicle stop based on the results of that computer check satisfied the constitutional requirement that an articulable and reasonable suspicion of some illegality must have preceded the stop.
The motion to suppress the evidence is denied.