Wednesday, August 19, 2015

State v. Keaton, New Jersey Supreme Court, August 2015. Trooper not Permitted to Search for Driving Credentials inside of Motor Vehicle of Driver Involved in Motor Vehicle Accident.

In this case the defendant was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident in which is vehicle overturned on a major highway. Although he was being treated for injuries by EMT his injuries were not life threatening.  Without asking for permission of the defendant, the trooper crawled into the overturned vehicle and retrieved the defendant’s driving credentials.  While doing so, the trooper discovered a handgun and CDS in which the defendant was indicted.

The Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts motion to suppress evidence of the contraband seized.

The court began its argument by reaffirming that the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution protect against warrantless searches. Both provide that [t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. U.S. Const. amend. IV; N.J. Const. art. I, 7. The police are required to obtain a warrant to conduct a search unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies. State v. Earls, 214 N.J. 564, 588 (2013).

In this case because the trooper did not have a warrant and the State argued that the plain view exception applied.  However, the court rejected that first argument holding that the items discovered in defendant’s vehicle did not fall within the plain view doctrine, and were illegally seized, because the trooper was not lawfully within the viewing area at the time of the contraband s discovery. State v. Bruzzese, 94 N.J. 210, 236 (1983)). Bruzzese, supra, 94 N.J. at 236 (requiring police officer to be lawfully in the viewing area to seize evidence under plain view doctrine). The court held that because the defendant was never provided with a reasonable opportunity to present his credentials the search was unjustified under the plain view exception to the warrant requirement.

The State also argued unsuccessfully that evidence would be admissible under the inevitable discovery doctrine. Under that doctrine, in order to have otherwise inadmissible evidence admitted, the State is required to show the following: (1) proper, normal and specific investigatory procedures would have been pursued in order to complete the investigation of the case; (2) under all of the surrounding relevant circumstances the pursuit of those procedures would have inevitably resulted in discovery of the evidence; and (3) the discovery of the evidence through the use of such procedures would have occurred wholly independently of such evidence by unlawful means. State v. Sugar, 100 N.J. 214, 238 (1985).  In that regard the State must offer clear and convincing evidence to sustain its burden. Id. at 240.

Again in rejecting that argument as well the court held that the State failed to demonstrate, by clear and convincing evidence, that law enforcement officials would have inevitably discovered the contraband in defendant s vehicle.  Specifically, the court found no evidence to suggest that the police intended to impound or inventory defendant s vehicle. That logically indicates that the State did not demonstrate that proper, normal, and specific investigatory procedures would have been pursued in order to complete the investigation of the case. Id. at 238. Because the State has failed to show that the police would have impounded or inventoried the vehicle, the inevitable discovery doctrine also does not apply.

Lastly, the court addressed whether the community-caretaking doctrine permitted the trooper to enter the vehicle in order to complete the accident report, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:4-131.

It is well settled that the community-caretaking doctrine is a narrow exception to the warrant requirement. State v. Edwards, 211 N.J. 117, 141 (2012). This doctrine only recognizes that police officers are able and sometimes required to provide a wide range of social services outside of their traditional law enforcement and criminal investigatory roles. These social-welfare activities include, among other things, protecting the vulnerable from harm and preserving property. In performing these tasks, typically, there is not time to acquire a warrant when emergent circumstances arise and an immediate search is required to preserve life or property. This narrow exception to the warrant requirement has been applied to such circumstances as allowing the police to conduct a warrantless search of a car to locate a gun that was missing from a police officer, to perform a welfare check of a vehicle that was parked in an area known for suicides and whose last authorized driver was listed as a missing person, and to set foot in an apartment to ascertain the welfare of a child who was home from school, with no apparent excuse, in a residence that had been the site of an alleged sexual assault earlier that day, among other things.

However, the court rejected this last exception argued by the State  and held that although an accident report must be prepared by the trooper pursuant to N.J.S.A. 39:4-131, that task did not permit the trooper to conduct the search of defendant s vehicle. The trooper s statutory duty to prepare an accident report is not an exigent circumstance encompassed by the community-caretaker exception to the warrant requirement. While we recognize that the trooper may have had an obligation as a community-caretaker to remove defendant s damaged vehicle from the highway, he did not have a duty to search defendant s vehicle.

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