The New Jersey Supreme Court recently considered the circumstances under which a law enforcement officer may legally obtain a driver’s registration and insurance information without requesting permission or allowing the driver the opportunity to retrieve themselves in the case of State v. Keaton.
The facts surrounding this decision involve the actions of a New Jersey State Trooper who responded to a one vehicle accident on I-295. When he arrived, he found a black sedan overturned in the median. The vehicle’s driver, Duran C. Keaton, was already removed from his car by EMTs prior to the Trooper’s arrival. In preparing a police report, the Trooper needed to obtain the vehicle’s registration and the driver’s insurance information. The Trooper did not ask Keaton for the documents, but instead entered the overturned vehicle to obtain them.
Once he entered Keaton’s vehicle, the Trooper observed a handgun in an open gym bag. He also found a small bag of marijuana. He eventually found Keaton’s license, registration and insurance information. Keaton was charged with multiple weapons offenses. Keaton filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the Trooper unlawfully entered his vehicle and should have sought permission from him or obtained a warrant before doing so. In response, the prosecution argued that the Trooper did not need a warrant because he saw the gun in “plain view.” The Court agreed with the prosecution, finding the Trooper’s testimony to be credible and found that he properly seized the gun after discovering the items in plain view. Keaton entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to four years of probation in addition to fines. He appealed to the Appellate Division.
The Appellate Division reserved the trial court’s decision, holding that the Trooper’s search violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court held that the Trooper could only enter the vehicle if a defendant was unable or unwilling to produce his credentials. Because Keaton’s injuries were not life-threating, the Court found that the Trooper should have: (1) given Keaton the opportunity to obtain the credentials himself; (2) received the documents from Keaton at the hospital; or (3) waited until Keaton was released from the hospital to obtain the information. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case.
On August 3, 2015, the Supreme Court in a published opinion agreed with the Appellate Division and held that the Trooper was required to provide Keaton the chance to obtain his credentials before entering the vehicle. If after providing that opportunity, the driver is unwilling or unable to produce the information, only then may an officer conduct a search for the credentials. Because the Trooper never provided Keaton with such an opportunity, the search of his vehicle was unlawful and the seizure of the gun was overturned.