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State v. Donis

December 10, 1998

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
MARIO I. DONIS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT. STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
HEIDI M. GORDON, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Per Curiam

Argued April 27, 1998

On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

The issue in these appeals is the constitutionality of a law enforcement officer's random check of a motor vehicle's license plate number using a mobile data terminal.

I.

A.

As background, a mobile data terminal (MDT) consists of a screen and keypad that are linked to the computerized databases of the New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The information that may be accessed by a user of the MDT is restricted. Because the MDT is an inquiry-only device and has no computing power of its own, a police officer is unable to add, change, or delete any information displayed on the pre-formatted screen. Information may be retrieved through the MDT by entering a license plate number.

When an officer enters a vehicle's license plate number, the initial "DMV plate" screen shows the expiration date of the registration for that vehicle; the status of the vehicle, including whether it has been reported stolen; the registrant's name, address, date of birth, and driver's license number; the year, make, model, license plate number, and color of the vehicle; the vehicle identification number; the number of owners of the registered vehicle; the maximum number of passengers for a passenger vehicle; the gross weight for a commercial vehicle; and the length of the registered vehicle if it is a boat.

When an officer accesses a DMV plate screen, the MDT then automatically runs a search of the registrant's name and displays the results on the "DMV name" screen. The DMV name screen shows the registrant's name and the number of names that match that search name; the registrant's driver's license number and date of birth; a code for the registrant's eye color; a code for whether the license or registration is suspended; whether the license is a photo or non-photo license; the licensee's address, social security number, date of birth, weight, and height; the term of the license; the license expiration date; the number of points accrued against the license; and the number of endorsements and restrictions on the license.

An officer with a driver's license number also can access the "DMV DL" screen. That screen shows the license expiration date; the driver's license number; the number of points accrued against the license; a code for whether the license or registration is suspended; the licensee's name, address, date of birth, sex, eye color code, height, weight code, and social security number; whether the license is a photo or a non- photo license; the term of the license; the number of endorsements and restrictions on the license; whether the endorsements and restrictions are for a vehicle or a boat; and the vehicle class code. As is apparent, much of the information retrieved from the "DMV DL" screen is included in the previously accessed screens.

In addition to using the license plate number, an officer can also enter the vehicle identification number to determine whether state or federal records indicate that the car has been reported stolen. By entering the licensee's name, an officer can further learn whether that individual is wanted by state or federal authorities. Currently, however, MDTs do not have access to the criminal history record information of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) or the State Crime Information Center (SCIC). Furthermore, at no time does the MDT provide any reference to the registrant's race.

Prior to the installation of MDT terminals in patrol cars, law enforcement officers had access to the same information as is available from the MDT. Access to that information, however, was provided by the dispatcher over police-band radio rather than in-vehicle terminals.

In both of these cases, police officers randomly entered the license plate numbers of petitioners' cars and accessed their DMV records, discovering that their driving privileges had been suspended. Use of the MDT by each officer was not governed by any manuals or policy directives and there was no supervision or recordkeeping involved. Petitioners challenge the officers' suspicionless access of that information as violative of Article I, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution.

B.

The essential facts in both cases are undisputed. At approximately 9:28 p.m. on January 24, 1994, Sergeant Kenneth Hawthorne, a West Windsor police officer, was on routine patrol in a marked police car equipped with a MDT. Sergeant Hawthorne was driving northbound on U.S. Route 1 behind a 1986 Subaru, driven by petitioner, Mauro Donis. While traveling behind Donis, the officer entered the vehicle's license plate number. Although Sergeant Hawthorne observed no criminal activity and no driving or equipment violation by Donis, he testified that he punched in the car's license plate number because of his proximity to the vehicle and the opportunity to stop the car if information appeared that would warrant such a stop. In fact, the MDT search revealed that the Subaru belonged to Donis and that his driver's license had been suspended. The MDT also provided Donis's address, birth date, social security number, sex, eye color, weight, and height.

While awaiting the MDT results, Sergeant Hawthorne observed that the driver of the Subaru was a male. He also noticed that the driver due to his low position in the driver's seat was relatively short in stature. The MDT search provided the information that the car's owner was male and 5'8" in height. Based on his observations of the driver and the results of the MDT inquiry, Hawthorne stopped the car. Donis identified himself to the officer and stated that he owned the car. He also admitted that the car was not insured. Sergeant Hawthorne then issued two summonses: one for driving with a suspended license, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:3-40, and one for driving without liability insurance, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2.

Donis pleaded guilty to both charges, conditioned on the outcome of his motion to suppress the data that Hawthorne retrieved from the MDT. The municipal court sentenced Donis, but stayed the sentence pending the outcome of the suppression hearing. The motion was denied and Donis appealed. The Law Division conducted a de novo hearing and affirmed the denial of Donis's suppression motion. The court found that, as a matter of law, there is no expectation of privacy with respect to a license plate and, thus, an officer may look up a license plate "for no reason at all." Again, Donis appealed. The Appellate Division granted the State's motion for a temporary remand to establish an evidentiary record and retained jurisdiction. When the case returned to the Appellate Division, the court consolidated Donis's appeal with that of Heidi Gordon. *fn1

C.

At approximately 10:00 p.m. on December 6, 1994, Hopewell Township Police Officer Joseph Giordano was parked on the side of Route 654, entering the license plate numbers of passing cars into the MDT in his patrol car. On that day, Giordano estimated that he had checked "two hundred or more" plate numbers. Petitioner, Heidi Gordon, passed in front of Officer Giordano's patrol car and stopped at a traffic light. The MDT revealed that the owner of the car was a female named Heidi Gordon, a forty-eight year old woman whose driver's license had been suspended. Because his headlights were shining into Gordon's car, Officer Giordano testified that he could determine that the driver and sole occupant of the car was an "older female." Based on his observations and the MDT results, Officer Giordano stopped the car. Confirming Gordon's identity once she provided him with her license, registration, and insurance card, Officer Giordano ticketed her for driving with a suspended license, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:3-40, and for driving without liability insurance, contrary to N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2.

Gordon moved to suppress the data obtained by Officer Giordano with the MDT. The municipal court denied Gordon's motion, holding that the intrusion by the officer satisfied the "reasonableness standard" for searches and seizures. Like Donis, Gordon entered a guilty plea to the charges, conditioned on her appeal of the denial of her suppression motion. After sentencing Gordon, the court stayed the license suspension pending the appeal. Eleven months after affirming the denial of Donis's motion to suppress, the Law Division conducted a de novo hearing and affirmed the denial of Gordon's suppression motion. The court reiterated that there is no expectation of privacy in one's license plate. Moreover, the court held, the MDT data, in combination with the officer's observations of Gordon, created a reasonable, articulable suspicion that justified the subsequent stop. Gordon appealed.

D.

After hearing oral arguments in both appeals, the Appellate Division consolidated the two cases and, in a per curiam opinion, affirmed the denials of both motions. The panel held that "'because vehicle license plates are openly displayed and the records [accessed by the MDT] are public,'" (quoting State v. Parks, 288 N.J. Super. 407, 410 (App. Div. 1996), there was no unconstitutional intrusion on defendants' privacy. The panel further ruled that the stops were valid and did not constitute unreasonable seizures because the officers reasonably believed there was a ...


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