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State v. Eckel

January 10, 2006

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
WILLIAM B. ECKEL, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 374 N.J. Super. 91 (2004).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

(NOTE: This is a companion case to State v. Dunlap, also decided today.)

The issue before the Court is whether the police may conduct a warrantless search of an automobile as incident to an arrest after the occupants have been removed from the vehicle and are secured in police custody.

On June 30, 2002, Officer Douglas Whitten received a report of the stolen green Mercury Cougar. The report came from the owners of the vehicle, Mr. and Mrs. Sanfillipo, who claimed that their daughter, Dana, had taken the car without permission and that defendant, William Eckel, might also be in the vehicle. At the time, Officer Whitten knew that there was a warrant issued by Upper Township for Eckel's arrest based on his failure to appear for municipal court dates.

Officer Whitten waited across the street from Eckel's residence and observed the green Mercury Cougar pull out of the driveway. Dana Sanfillipo was observed driving the car and Eckel was seated in the front passenger seat. A male juvenile was sitting in the rear passenger seat. Officer Whitten stopped the vehicle with the assistance of Sergeant Jack Beers.

While Officer Whitten approached the driver's side of the car to obtain license and registration, Sergeant Beers approached the passenger side and asked Eckel to exit the car. Sergeant Beers informed Eckel that he was under arrest on an outstanding warrant, placed him in handcuffs, and put him in the back seat of the police car that was parked behind the Sanfillipo vehicle. Officer Whitten then asked Dana to exit the vehicle and step to the rear, off to the side of the road. Dana asked permission to kiss Eckel goodbye and to give him clothing he had left in the car. Officer Whitten told Dana that he would retrieve the clothing, later testifying that he did not let Dana go to the car because it would have jeopardized his safety.

While at the Sanfillipo car and upon lifting the clothing from the passenger seat floor, Officer Whitten observed a phone book with some "green vegetation and stems" lying on top that he believed to be marijuana. The officer also observed an open box of "Philly Blunt" cigars behind the passenger seat, which contributed to his belief that the vegetation was marijuana. Officer Whitten then retrieved a pair of blue denim shorts from behind the passenger seat. The officer found a softball-sized baggie rolled up in the shorts. He opened the baggie and inside he found another baggie with several items, including a clear plastic baggie containing a white powdery substance, an electronic scale with white residue on the tray, and several different types of small glassine bags. Officer Whitten suspected the white powder to be cocaine. The officer asked the juvenile to step out of the car and continued to search the passenger compartment. Officer Whitten found a larger baggie containing green vegetation that he believed to be marijuana in between the rear seat and the door. When questioned, the occupants all denied ownership of the suspected marijuana and cocaine found in the car. Dana indicated that the shorts might belong to her brother who also used the car.

Eckel and Dana Sanfillipo were charged with third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance, cocaine (count one); third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance, cocaine, with intent to distribute (count two); and fourth-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance, marijuana, with intent to distribute (count three). There were no charges relating to the stolen car because the Dana's parents would not press charges.

Eckel moved to suppress the evidence against him. The trial court concluded that, under the circumstances of entering the vehicle at Dana's request to retrieve clothes, the officer's entry into the car was reasonable and that his observations at that point, along with the fluid nature of what was transpiring, constituted probable cause and exigent circumstances to search without a warrant. On that same date, Eckel entered a guilty plea to count two of the indictment. He was sentenced to three years of probation, upon service of weekend county jail time of 180 days. The court also imposed a number of conditions along with the fines and penalties, which are not at issue here.

Eckel appealed to the Appellate Division, challenging the denial of his suppression motion, arguing that the warrantless search was not justified as incident to a valid arrest either as having occurred pursuant to consent, community caretaking, or automobile exceptions to the warrant requirement. Eckel also challenged his sentence. In this appeal, the State waived all justifications for the search but one: the search incident to arrest exception as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York v.Belton.

The Appellate Division reversed, declining to follow Belton because it does not represent the law in New Jersey under the greater protections afforded by the State Constitution. The panel concluded that because Eckel was already in custody in the rear of the patrol car before the search took place, the interior of the vehicle was not under his control and the evidence seized should have been suppressed.

The Supreme Court granted certification limited to the issue of the validity of the warrantless search under Belton.

HELD: The search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement has two specific purposes -- the protection of the police and the preservation of evidence. Because neither purpose is advanced by searching a vehicle of a person who effectively is incapacitated, such a search is incompatible with Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. To the extent that New York v. Belton has concluded otherwise in interpreting the U.S. Constitution, this Court respectfully parts company with The U.S. Supreme Court.

1. The dual rationale behind the search incident to a valid arrest exception to the warrant requirement expressed in Chimel v. California is the protection of the officer's safety and the preservation of evidence to be used at trial. In Belton, the U.S. Supreme Court extended the warrantless search incident to arrest exception to automobile searches. The Supreme Court held that when a police officer has made a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, the officer may, as a contemporaneous incident to that arrest, search the passenger compartment of that vehicle and may also examine the contents of any containers found within the passenger compartment. Belton has been criticized over the years by legal scholars as departing from Chimel in allowing warrantless searches of areas that are no longer in the suspect's immediate control. While some states follow Belton, others do not based on their own state constitutional provisions. (Pp. 8-19)

2. Although Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution is nearly identical to the text of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, this Court has not hesitated to afford New Jersey citizens greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures under Article I, Paragraph 7 than would be the case under its federal counterpart. The U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of the Federal Constitution establishes not the ceiling but the floor of minimum constitutional protections. (Pp. 19-25)

3. In Belton, and later in Thornton, the U.S. Supreme Court altered Chimel, establishing a bright-line rule that essentially validates every automobile search incident to the occupant's arrest, regardless of whether the occupant has the capacity to injure the police or destroy the evidence. Belton detached itself from the theoretical underpinnings of established Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that initially led to the search incident to arrest exception. The benefit to the police of a so-called bright-line rule, standing alone, cannot support an exception to the warrant requirement. Thus, this Court declines to adopt Belton and its progeny because to do so would require it to accept a theoretically rootless doctrine that would erode the rights guaranteed to New Jersey citizens under Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State Constitution -- the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. (Pp. 25-27)

4. A warrantless search of an automobile based not on probable cause but solely on the arrest of a person unable to endanger police or destroy evidence cannot be justified under any exception to the warrant requirement and is unreasonable. Once the occupant of a vehicle has been arrested, removed and secured elsewhere, the considerations informing the search incident to arrest exception are absent and the exception in inapplicable. If the occupant has been arrested but not removed and secured, the court will have to determine on a case-by-case basis whether the suspect was in a position to compromise police safety or evidence to justify resort to the search incident to arrest exception. (Pp. 27-29)

5. In this case, the trial judge based her decision on theories including consent, plain view, and the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. Those exceptions were not reached by the Appellate panel because of the State's refusal to address them, in an apparent effort to force an adjudication of Belton. Therefore, the matter is remanded to the Appellate Division to consider the remaining unresolved issues. (P. 29)

For the reasons noted by the Court, notwithstanding the Appellate Division's entirely correct disposition of the Belton issue, the matter is REMANDED for consideration of outstanding issues.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN, WALLACE and RIVERA-SOTO join in JUSTICE LONG'S opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long

Argued September 13, 2005

The issue raised in this appeal is whether the police may conduct a warrantless search of an automobile as incident to an arrest after the occupants have been removed from the vehicle and are secured in police custody. Because the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement was limned for two specific purposes -- the protection of the police and the preservation of evidence -- and because neither purpose can be advanced by searching the vehicle of a person who effectively is incapacitated, we hold that such a search is incompatible with Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. To the extent New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454, 101 S.Ct. 2860, 69 L.Ed. 2d 768 (1981), has concluded otherwise in interpretating the Federal Constitution, we respectfully part company with the United States Supreme Court.

I.

On June 30, 2002, at around 3:20 p.m., while on routine patrol, Officer Douglas Whitten received a report of a stolen vehicle, described as a green Mercury Cougar bearing the license plate FTY1380. Earlier in the day, the owners of the vehicle, Mr. and Mrs. Sanfillipo, reported that the car had been stolen by their daughter, Dana, and that Dana's boyfriend, defendant William B. Eckel, also might be in the car. At the time, Officer Whitten knew that there was a warrant issued by Upper Township for Eckel's arrest based on failure to appear for municipal court dates.

Officer Whitten waited across the street from defendant's residence on Seashore Road and observed the green Mercury Cougar pulling out of the driveway. A young woman, later identified as Dana Sanfillipo, was at the wheel and defendant was in the front passenger seat. A male juvenile was sitting in the rear passenger ...


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