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State v. Terry

Supreme Court of New Jersey

March 14, 2018

STATE OF NEW JERSEY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
ORNETTE M. TERRY, a/k/a KEITH TERRY, KEITH M. TERRY, ORHETTE TERRY, and RASHEIA TERRY, Defendant-Respondent.

          Argued October 11, 2017

         On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

          Milton S. Leibowitz, Special Deputy Attorney General/Acting Assistant Prosecutor, argued the cause for appellant (Thomas K. Isenhour, Acting Union County Prosecutor, attorney; Milton S. Leibowitz and Kimberly L. Donnelly, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Tamar Y. Lerer, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Tamar Y. Lerer, of counsel and on the briefs).

          Steven A. Yomtov, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for amicus curiae Attorney General of New Jersey (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney; Steven A. Yomtov, of counsel and on the brief).

          Alexi Machek Velez argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (Edward L. Barocas, Legal Director, attorney; Alexi Machek Velez, Alexander R. Shalom, Edward L. Barocas, and Jeanne M. LoCicero, of counsel and on the briefs).

         ALBIN, J., writing for the Court.

         The Court considers whether an officer acted reasonably, in accordance with New Jersey precedents permitting a limited registration search without a warrant and the dictates of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State Constitution, when he searched defendant's glove box.

         Union Township Police Officer Devlin observed defendant's GMC truck run a stop sign and almost strike his patrol car. Officer Devlin activated the overheard lights and siren. Defendant did not pull to the side of the road. Instead, without signaling, he zigzagged back and forth from the right to the left lane in traffic. Officer Devlin relayed the truck's license plate number to a dispatcher, who notified him that the vehicle was a Hertz rental, which had not been reported stolen. After a half mile, defendant turned into a gas station where he came to a stop.

         Officer Devlin parked his patrol car behind defendant's truck while a back-up police officer in a marked unit pulled in front of the truck, effectively blocking it in. With the other officer beside him and their guns trained on defendant, Officer Devlin repeatedly ordered defendant to show his hands, but defendant made no response. Twenty to thirty seconds later, Officer Devlin opened the driver's door and commanded that he step out of the vehicle. Defendant did so, leaned against the truck, put his hands in his pockets, and asked why the officers had pulled him over. Although Officer Devlin repeatedly instructed defendant to show his hands, he was slow to comply. The two officers quickly patted defendant down, assuring themselves he was not armed with a weapon.

         When Officer Devlin asked defendant for identification, defendant reached into his pocket and presented his license. Officer Devlin next requested that defendant produce the vehicle's registration and insurance card. Defendant did not respond, "[h]e just stood there with a blank stare on his face." The officer asked a second time, and defendant "shrugged his shoulders." Defendant made no non-verbal gestures to indicate that the papers were on his person or in the truck. Finally, Officer Devlin asked defendant whether he owned the truck or had any paperwork for it. Again, defendant did not respond. Officer Devlin went to the passenger's side of the truck, opened the door, and looked in the glove box-"[t]he most common place" where papers are stored. Although he found no documentation in the glove box, the light from his flashlight reflected against a white object on the passenger's floorboard. That object was a handgun.

         The trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress. The court found that Officer Devlin "was a reasonable and credible witness" and concluded that because defendant failed to produce the vehicle registration on demand, Officer Devlin had a right to search for the registration, rental agreement, and insurance in the area where such documents are usually kept. The court further determined that Officer Devlin's observation of the handgun met the plain view exception to the warrant requirement. At the conclusion of a jury trial, defendant was found guilty of second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun and fourth-degree possession of hollow point bullets. A panel of the Appellate Division reversed, determining that the warrantless search of defendant's truck violated both the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. The Court granted the State's petition for certification. 228 N.J. 448 (2016).

         HELD: Sufficient credible evidence supported the trial court's determination that defendant was given an adequate opportunity to present the vehicle's registration before the search commenced. When a driver is unwilling or unable to present proof of a vehicle's ownership, a police officer may conduct a limited search for the registration papers in the areas where they are likely kept in the vehicle. When a police officer can readily determine that the driver or passenger is the lawful possessor of the vehicle-despite an inability to produce the registration-a warrantless search for proof of ownership will not be justified.

         1. One of the well-established exceptions to the warrant requirement is the automobile exception. A corollary is the authority of a police officer to conduct a pinpointed search for proof of ownership when a motorist "is unable or unwilling to produce his registration or insurance information." State v. Keaton, 222 N.J. 438, 442-43 (2015). The State has a "compelling interest in maintaining highway safety by ensuring that only qualified drivers operate motor vehicles and that motor vehicles are in a safe condition." State v. Donis, 157N.J. 44, 51 (1998). Thatinterest extends to ensuring that operators are not in possession of stolen vehicles. The operator of a motor vehicle must "exhibit the registration certificate, when requested to so to do by a police officer, " N.J.S.A. 39:3-29, and must "comply with any direction, by voice or hand" by the officer, N.J.S.A. 39:4-57. A "police officer is authorized to remove any unregistered vehicle from the public highway to a storage space or garage, " N.J.S.A. 39:3 -4, or to impound a car that he reasonably believes may be stolen, N.J.S.A. 39:5-47. Had Officer Devlin not been able to search the glove compartment, his other option would have been to impound the vehicle. An inventory search of an impounded vehicle is a constitutionally permissible practice, (pp. 14-21)

         2. Since State v. Boykins. 50 N.J. 73, 82-83 (1967), New Jersey courts have repeatedly reaffirmed the vitality of the limited registration exception to the warrant requirement. In Keaton, a unanimous Court affirmed and applied the limited registration exception, holding that when an operator is "unable or unwilling" to produce his registration, an officer may conduct a limited and focused search for the ownership credentials. 222 N.J. at 442-43. The Court made clear that a search for proof of ownership must be reasonable in scope and therefore "confined to the glove compartment or other area where registration might normally be kept in a vehicle." Id. at 449. The authority to conduct a warrantless registration search is premised on a driver's lesser expectation of privacy in his vehicle and on the need to ensure highway and public safety. The courts in a number of other jurisdictions have determined that, in appropriate circumstances, a limited warrantless search of a motor vehicle for proof of ownership does not violate the Fourth Amendment, and the Court continues to stand with those jurisdictions, (pp. 21-31)

         3. The rationale for a limited registration search exception is (1) the minimal invasion of the driver's reasonable expectation of privacy; (2) the furtherance of public safety in general and officer safety in particular; and (3) the recognition that, for constitutional purposes, a brief and restricted search is arguably less intrusive than impounding the vehicle and conducting an inventory search later. Accordingly, after a driver is given the opportunity to present the vehicle's ownership credentials but is unwilling or unable to do so, a police officer may engage in a pinpointed search limited to those places, such as a glove box, where proof of ownership is ordinarily kept. If a driver or passenger explains to an officer that he has lost or forgotten his registration, and the officer can readily determine that either is the lawful possessor, then a warrantless search for proof of ownership is not justified. Modern technology may increasingly allow police officers to make such timely determinations, (pp. 31-34)

         4. The trial court held that defendant was given a meaningful opportunity to present the truck's rental papers, and he failed to do so. There is sufficient credible evidence to support that conclusion. From the objectively reasonable viewpoint of the officers, defendant was unwilling or unable to produce proof of ownership. At that point, the totality of defendant's behavior raised a reasonable suspicion that the truck might be a stolen vehicle. Permitting a driver to maintain possession of a potentially stolen motor vehicle is a public safety risk. All in all, the officers acted reasonably, in accordance with New Jersey precedents permitting a limited registration search without a warrant and the dictates of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State Constitution, (pp. 34-39)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Appellate Division for consideration of the issues not reached by it on defendant's direct appeal.

          CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER, DISSENTING, observes that an examination of the history and scope of the driving credentials exception reveals that its foundation is far from strong. Chief Justice Rabner adds that the exception is potentially quite broad and permits law enforcement to search a vehicle without probable cause, when officer safety is not an issue, and when there is no legitimate need for credentials. Stressing the Court's limiting principle-that a warrantless search for credentials cannot be justified when "the officer can readily determine that either" the driver or passenger "is the lawful possessor"-Chief Justice Rabner notes that, because officers on duty nearly always have access to electronic records, few warrantless searches for credentials could ever be justified.

          JUSTICES PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, and SOLOMON join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER filed a separate, dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICES LaVECCHIA and TIMPONE join.

          OPINION

          ALBIN, JUSTICE

         A police officer has the lawful right to request that a driver, stopped for a motor vehicle violation, provide proof of ownership. N.J.S.A. 39:3-29. One reason for this regulatory law is to ensure that the driver is not operating a stolen motor vehicle. When a driver is unwilling or unable to present such proof, our jurisprudence permits the officer to conduct a limited search of those places in the vehicle where proof of ownership is ordinarily kept. See State v. Keaton, 222 N.J. 438, 448-49 (2015); State v. Pena-Flores, 198 N.J. 6, 31 (2009). This very narrow exception to the warrant requirement is based primarily on public-safety concerns that require prompt action, as in the present case.

         Defendant Keith Terry caused a patrol car to activate its lights and siren after the rental truck he was driving ran a stop sign. Defendant triggered a dangerous chase as he eluded the police, weaving through traffic before pulling into a gas station. The police removed defendant from the truck at gunpoint, and defendant did not respond to an officer's repeated requests to show the truck's registration or proof of ownership. In light of defendant's silence and his failure to indicate he was in lawful possession of the truck, a police officer conducted a limited search of the glove compartment for the truck's ownership papers and, in the process, observed a handgun in plain view on the vehicle's floor. Thereafter, defendant was charged with and found guilty by a jury of unlawful possession of a firearm and hollow point bullets.

         Although the trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress the handgun, the Appellate Division reversed and vacated defendant's conviction. It held that the search was unreasonable because the police did not give defendant the opportunity to produce the truck's registration.

         We conclude that the Appellate Division erred in substituting its factfindings for those of the trial court. Sufficient credible evidence supported the trial court's determination that defendant was given an adequate opportunity to present the vehicle's registration before the search commenced. We reaffirm our decision in Keaton -- and in previous cases -- that, when a driver is unwilling or unable to present proof of a vehicle's ownership, a police officer may conduct a limited search for the registration papers in the areas where they are likely kept in the vehicle. We add this limiting principle. When a police officer can readily determine that the driver or passenger is the lawful possessor of the vehicle -- despite an inability to produce the registration -- a warrantless search for proof of ownership will not be justified.

         The limited registration search exception to the warrant requirement has long been embedded in our jurisprudence and has been adopted by many other courts. We reject the constitutional challenge to the limited registration search exception, as applied here, and hold that the search of defendant's glove box was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of our State Constitution.

         Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Appellate Division and reinstate defendant's conviction.

         I.

         A.

         Defendant was charged in an indictment with second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b), and fourth-degree possession of hollow point bullets, N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3(f). Defendant claimed that the police discovered the handgun and bullets by searching his truck in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. He therefore moved to suppress those items from evidence in his upcoming trial.

         At a suppression hearing, the State called Union Township Police Officer Joseph Devlin, the sole witness to testify at the hearing. The record before us is based on his testimony.

         On December 31, 2010, at approximately 6:50 p.m., while operating a marked patrol car in Union Township, Officer Devlin observed defendant's GMC truck run a stop sign on Ingersoll Terrace and turn right onto the eastbound lane of Morris Avenue. As it barreled through the stop sign, the GMC truck almost struck Officer Devlin's patrol car, which was traveling eastbound on Morris Avenue. On this portion of Morris Avenue, two lanes flow in each direction. Officer Devlin activated the overheard lights and siren of his patrol car, which was then positioned immediately behind defendant's vehicle.

         Defendant did not pull to the side of the road, despite the flashing lights and blaring siren behind him. Instead, without signaling, he zigzagged back and forth from the right to the left lane in traffic. During the chase, Officer Devlin relayed the truck's license plate number to a dispatcher, who notified him that the vehicle was a Newark Airport Hertz rental, which at that point had not been reported stolen. After traveling approximately a half mile, defendant turned into a gas station where he came to a stop.

         Officer Devlin parked his patrol car behind defendant's truck while a back-up police officer in a marked unit pulled in front of the truck, effectively blocking it in. The two officers drew their guns. As Officer Devlin walked toward the driver's door, his view was obscured by the truck's tinted rear windows. Officer Devlin wondered why the truck failed to stop and whether it was stolen. When Officer Devlin reached the driver's door, he saw defendant seated behind the wheel.

         With the other officer beside him and their guns trained on defendant, Officer Devlin repeatedly ordered defendant to show his hands, "for our safety [and] your safety, " but defendant made no response. Twenty to thirty seconds later, Officer Devlin opened the driver's door and commanded that he step out of the vehicle. Defendant did so, leaned against the truck, put his hands in his pockets, and asked why the officers had pulled him over. Although Officer Devlin repeatedly instructed defendant to show his hands, he was slow to comply. The two officers quickly patted defendant down, assuring themselves he was not armed with a weapon.

         When Officer Devlin asked defendant for identification, defendant reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and presented his license. Officer Devlin next requested that defendant produce the vehicle's registration and insurance card. Defendant did not respond, " [h] e just stood there with a blank stare on his face." The officer asked a second time, and defendant "shrugged his shoulders." Defendant made no nonverbal gestures to indicate that the papers were on his person or in the truck. Finally, Officer Devlin asked defendant whether he owned the truck or had any paperwork for it. Again, defendant did not respond; instead, "he just stood there with a blank stare."

         At this point, Officer Devlin went to the passenger's side of the truck, opened the door, and using his flashlight looked in the glove box -- "[t]he most common place" where ownership and insurance papers are stored. Although he found no documentation in the glove box, the light from his flashlight reflected against a white object on the passenger's floorboard. That object was a handgun.[1]

         Officer Devlin closed the passenger's door and arrested defendant. The officers searched defendant incident to the arrest and found a valid rental agreement for the truck in his front jacket pocket. The vehicle was towed to the Union Township police garage. Later, the police secured a search warrant and recovered the handgun, which was loaded with hollow point bullets.

         B.

         The trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress. The court found that Officer Devlin "was a reasonable and credible witness."[2] The court concluded that because defendant failed to produce the vehicle registration on demand, Officer Devlin had a right to search for the registration, rental agreement, and insurance in the area where such documents are usually kept. The court further determined that Officer Devlin's observation of the handgun met the plain view exception to the warrant requirement. The court also denied defendant's motion for reconsideration.

         At the conclusion of a jury trial in August 2013, defendant was found guilty of both weapons offenses. The trial court sentenced defendant to a five-year prison term with a three-year period of parole disqualification for the handgun-possession offense and to a concurrent twelve-month term for the hollow-nose-bullet offense. Financial penalties and assessments were also imposed.

         C.

         A panel of the Appellate Division reversed the trial court's order suppressing the evidence and vacated defendant's conviction. The panel determined that the warrantless search of defendant's truck for the vehicle's registration or proof of ownership violated both the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. In reaching that conclusion, the panel applied our decision in Keaton, which held that a driver must be given an opportunity to present his credentials, and only if he "is unable or unwilling to produce his registration or insurance information . . . may an officer conduct a search for those credentials." 222 N.J. at 442-43.

         According to the panel, Officer Devlin assumed that defendant's shrug suggested that defendant did not know where the ownership credentials were located. The panel also surmised that "defendant's non-verbal response to Officer Devlin's requests may have been the product of fear." The panel reasoned that merely because defendant did not know the location of the credentials did not mean he was "unwilling" to produce them. The panel further reasoned that because the police did not give defendant the opportunity to reenter the truck, the State was foreclosed from arguing that defendant was "unable" to present the ownership papers. Under the panel's analysis, the State did not establish that defendant was "unable or unwilling to produce" proof of ownership, and therefore a warrantless search was not justified. The panel also suggested that the search was unnecessary and therefore unreasonable because Officer Devlin could have issued summonses for failure to stop and unsafe lane change without access to paperwork showing a valid registration and insurance.

         Finally, the panel opined that Keaton and Pena-Flores have effectively "superseded" State v. Lark, in which the Appellate Division ruled that the police could not search a car for a license when the driver's "identity was unnecessary to prove the motor vehicle offense." 319 N.J.Super. 618, 627 (App. Div. 1999), aff'd, 163 N.J. 294 (2000).

         D.

         We granted the State's petition for certification. 228 N.J. 448 (2016). We also granted the motions of the Attorney General of New Jersey and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) to participate as amici curiae.

         II.

         A.

         The State contends that the Appellate Division ignored the pronouncement in Keaton allowing for a limited registration search when a defendant is unwilling or unable to produce proof that he is the lawful possessor of a vehicle and when, as here, the warrantless search is grounded in public safety. The State asserts that because of defendant's "threatening, non-compliant manner" and the officer-safety concerns that prompted his removal from the truck, the police acted reasonably by not permitting defendant to return to the vehicle before conducting a limited search of the glove box for the rental agreement. The State maintains that, given the totality of the circumstances, the officers acted in an objectively reasonable manner based on the fast-paced events facing them.

         In support of the State's position, the Attorney General, as amicus curiae, posits that "[p]ublic safety must always be part of the calculus in assessing the reasonableness of police conduct in conducting a motor vehicle stop." The Attorney General contends that "defendant's evasive and obstructionist behavior" justified the officers removing defendant from the truck for their safety and that, given defendant's unwillingness or inability to produce the rental agreement or to indicate its location, the officers acted reasonably in not permitting him to return to the vehicle. The Attorney General submits that a defendant's failure to present proof of ownership "supports a reasonable suspicion that [a] vehicle is stolen, " quoting State v. Holmgren, 282 N.J.Super. 212, 215 (App. Div. 1995), and points out that, here, defendant could easily have grabbed the gun on the floorboard had he been allowed to reenter the vehicle. For those reasons, the Attorney General concludes that the limited search of the glove box for the rental agreement was constitutionally permissible.

         B.

         Defendant argues that a warrantless search for proof of a vehicle's ownership in a glove box, even in the limited circumstances permitted by Keaton, violates the Fourth Amendment. In defendant's view, because the United States Supreme Court has yet to recognize a "credentials exception" to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment, this Court does not have the power to do so. Defendant, moreover, maintains that a credentials search could not be justified even if it were subject to the test articulated in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19-24 (1968), balancing the State's claimed need for the search against the intrusion into an individual's privacy rights. According to defendant, the balance favors the individual, not the government, because the rationale of a credentials search is predicated on law enforcement's need to access information about a vehicle's ownership and not to ensure officer safety. He reasons that merely because N.J.S.A. 39:3-29 requires a driver to present his registration to a police officer does not mean that the statute authorizes a search for the document. Additionally, defendant claims that the police gave him less than two minutes to present the documents and that was not "a reasonable opportunity" to do so. In his view, the police should have "sent him on his way after he failed to present his credential[s] and was ticketed for that offense."

         Aligned with defendant, the ACLU-NJ, as amicus curiae, expresses its hope that "this Court will repudiate the driving documents exception to the warrant requirement." Alternatively, the ACLU-NJ argues that the search for the vehicle's ownership papers in this case did not meet the standard set forth in Keaton. The ACLU-NJ submits that (1) defendant "was not provided a reasonable opportunity to present his own credentials, given the extreme circumstances of his seizure"; (2) "the search was not conducted for the purpose of establishing ownership of the vehicle"; and (3) the search exceeded its permissible scope and was not tailored to the traffic violation committed.

         III.

         A.

         We first must address defendant's Fourth Amendment challenge to the constitutionality of the limited registration search exception to the warrant requirement set forth in New Jersey jurisprudence, most recently in Keaton. Although defendant did not raise a constitutional challenge to the limited registration search exception before the trial court or Appellate Division, we will decide the issue because of its general importance and because only this Court can reverse its own precedents. See Presbyterian Homes of Synod v. Div. of Tax Appeals, 55 N.J. 275, 289 (1970) ("This Court may . . . accept a constitutional question not raised below." (citing Lettieri v. State Bd. of Med. Exam'rs, 24 N.J. 199, 206 (1957))).

         When the trial court has applied the proper legal principles at a suppression hearing, we defer to its factual findings "so long as those findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence in the record." State v. Gamble, 218 N.J. 412, 424 (2014) (citing State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 243 (2007)). Deference to those findings is particularly appropriate when the court had the "opportunity to hear and see the witnesses" on which it rendered its decision. See Elders, 192 N.J. at 244 (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964)) .

         B.

         The United States Constitution and New Jersey Constitution prohibit law enforcement officials from carrying out "unreasonable searches and seizures" and guarantee that warrants shall not issue in the absence of "probable cause." U.S. Const. amend. IV; N.J. Const, art. I, ¶ 7. "[T]he ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is 'reasonableness.'" Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 2473, 2482 (2014) (quoting Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006)); see also State v. Novembrino, 105 N.J. 95, 185 (1987). "[T]he Fourth Amendment does not require that every search be made pursuant to a warrant. It prohibits only 'unreasonable searches and seizures.' . . . The test of reasonableness cannot be fixed by per se rules; each case must be decided on its own facts." South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 372-73 (1976) (alteration in original) (quoting Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 509-10 (1971) (Black, J., concurring and dissenting)).

         Nevertheless, within our constitutional framework, a warrantless search is presumptively invalid and is permissible only if it falls within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement. Elders, 192 N.J. at 246 (citing State v. Pineiro, 181 N.J. 13, 19-20 (2004)); see also State v. Wilson, 178 N.J. 7, 12 (2003). One of the well-established exceptions to the warrant requirement is the automobile exception. Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153 (1925) . In the context of an automobile stop, "the permissibility of a particular law enforcement practice is judged by balancing its intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests." Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 654 (1979); cf. Terry, 392 U.S. at 21 (assessing reasonableness of warrantless police frisk of suspect, in part, by balancing "governmental interest which allegedly justifies official intrusion" against "the constitutionally protected interests of the private citizen" (quoting Camara v. Mun. Court of San Francisco, 387 U.S. 523, 534-35 (1967))).

         A corollary to the automobile exception -- one recognized in New Jersey and many other states -- is the authority of a police officer to conduct a pinpointed search for proof of ownership when a motorist "is unable or unwilling to produce his registration or insurance information." Keaton, 222 N.J. at 442-43. This limited registration search exception is partly rooted in the common-sense notion that the inability or unwillingness of a driver to produce a vehicle's registration may raise "a reasonable suspicion that the vehicle was stolen." See Holmgren, 282 N.J. Super, at 216. Although the limited registration search exception is well-ingrained in New Jersey jurisprudence, we have never before discussed the constitutional underpinnings of that doctrine.

         IV.

         A.

         The justification for the limited registration search doctrine in many ways corresponds with that of the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. Under the Fourth Amendment, a police officer is authorized to conduct a warrantless search of a lawfully stopped motor vehicle "if it is 'readily mobile' and the officer has 'probable cause' to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of an offense." State v. Witt, 223 N.J. 409, 422 (2015) (quoting Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940 (1996)).[3]

         The automobile exception is premised on three rationales:

(1) the inherent mobility of the vehicle, Carroll, 267 U.S. at 153;
(2) the lesser expectation of privacy in an automobile compared to a home, California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 391-93 (1985); and
(3) the recognition that a Fourth Amendment intrusion occasioned by a prompt search based on probable cause is not necessarily greater than a prolonged detention of the vehicle and its occupants while the police secure a warrant, Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 51-52 (1970).

[Witt, 223 N.J. at 422-23.]

         The inherent-mobility rationale does not require further analysis here, but the other two rationales offer strong support for the limited registration search exception.

         B.

         It is well understood that motorists have a lesser expectation of privacy in their vehicles when driven on our roadways. See State v. Donis, 157 N.J. 44');">157 N.J. 44, 51-52 (1998) . Given New Jersey's "extensive regulation of its highways and thoroughfares, Me]very operator of a motor vehicle must expect that the State, in enforcing its regulations, will intrude to some extent upon that operator's privacy.'" Ibid, (alteration in original) (quoting New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106, 113(1986)). Indeed, the State has a "compelling interest in maintaining highway safety by ensuring that only qualified drivers operate motor vehicles and that motor vehicles are in a safe condition." Id. at 51 (quoting State v. Kadelak, 280 N.J.Super. 349, 360 (App. Div. 1995)); see also Prouse, 440 U.S. at 658 ("The registration requirement . . . [is] designed to keep dangerous automobiles off the road."). That compelling state interest extends to ensuring that operators are not in possession of stolen vehicles. See Donis, 157 N.J. at 52(noting that one reason for collection of registration information by Division of Motor Vehicles is "to assist law enforcement officers in locating the owners of stolen cars" (quoting Governor's Reconsideration and Recommendation Statement for A. 1845 & A. 2448 (1989), reprinted in N.J.S.A. 39:3-4)).

         Under this highly regulated scheme, the operator of a motor vehicle must "exhibit the registration certificate, when requested to so to do by a police officer, " N.J.S.A. 39:3-29, and must "comply with any direction, by voice or hand" by the officer, N.J.S.A. 39:4-57. Additionally, a "police officer is authorized to remove any unregistered vehicle from the public highway to a storage space or garage, " N.J.S.A. 39:3-4, or to impound a car that he reasonably believes may be stolen, after an operator or passenger is unable to establish he is in lawful possession, N.J.S.A. 39:5-47 ("The commission may authorize the seizure of a motor vehicle operated . . . when it has reason to believe that the motor vehicle has been stolen or is otherwise being operated under suspicious circumstances."), cited in State v. Hock, 54 N.J. 526, 532-35 (1969).

         The Fourth Amendment, moreover, is not offended if an automobile is seized or its operator temporarily detained when a law enforcement officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the vehicle is unregistered or stolen. See Prouse, 440 U.S. at 663.

         C.

         When the operator of a vehicle is unable or unwilling to produce the registration or ownership papers, as in the present case, a quick, pinpointed search for the documents in the glove compartment is arguably a lesser intrusion under the Fourth Amendment than the immediate impoundment of the vehicle and detention of the operator. That follows from the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court in adhering to the automobile exception. That Court has held, as one rationale for the automobile warrant exception, that "for Fourth Amendment purposes, an immediate search of a vehicle may represent a lesser intrusion than impounding the vehicle and detaining its occupants while the police secure a warrant." See Witt, 223 N.J. at 424 (citing Chambers, 399 U.S. at 51-52); see also United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 831 (1982) ("A defendant may consider the seizure of the car a greater intrusion than an immediate search. ... In effect, the warrantless search is permissible because a warrant requirement would not provide significant protection of the defendant's Fourth Amendment interests." (Marshall, J., dissenting) (citation omitted)); cf. Class, 475 U.S. at 118 (finding no Fourth Amendment violation when officer moved papers covering VIN inside vehicle because "search was far less intrusive than a formal arrest, which would have been permissible for a traffic offense under New York law").

         In the case before us, had Officer Devlin not been able to conduct an immediate search of the glove compartment, his other option would have been to impound the vehicle. See Slockbower, 79 N.J. 1, 6 (1979); Hock, 54 N.J. at 532-35; see also N.J.S.A. 39:3-4; N.J.S.A. 39:5-47. An inventory search of an impounded vehicle is a constitutionally permissible practice. See Opperman, 428 U.S. at 369-72. Significantly, "standard inventories often include an examination of the glove compartment, since it is a customary place for documents of ownership and registration." Id. at 372. For Fourth Amendment purposes, the impoundment and inventory search of a vehicle for registration arguably is more intrusive than a limited registration search at the scene.

         With those principles in mind, we now look at the development of the limited registration search exception to the warrant ...


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