On June 6, 2023, the New Jersey Appellate Division issued State v. Johnson, a valuable published opinion that clarifies the procedures that must be followed under the “vehicle registration search” exception to the warrant requirement. The vehicle registration search exception the warrant requirement authorizes police to enter a lawfully stopped vehicle to conduct a pinpointed search for a paper registration certificate if the motorist is unable or unwilling to produce that document after having been provided a meaningful opportunity to comply with the officer’s request. By holding that “a motorist is not ‘unable’ to produce a registration certificate within the meaning of the exception when the sole reason for that inability is a police officer’s discretionary decision to prevent reentry,” the Appellate Division effectively prevents police from forcing a police search of a glove compartment by denying the motorist access for safety reasons.

In Johnson, the defendant parked and exited his vehicle before the police could complete the stop. The question before the court was whether the police could lawfully initiate a vehicle registration search when the detained driver is outside the vehicle at the time the officer requests the registration certificate, but where the officer deems it unsafe for the driver to reenter the vehicle to retrieve it. The court concluded that providing a detained driver with a meaningful opportunity to produce the registration certificate is an essential prerequisite for conducting a registration search, and that the requirement to provide that opportunity can only be waived if the driver is genuinely unable or unwilling to comply with the police request for the vehicle credentials. In the court’s view, any alternative interpretation of the registration search exception would undermine, if not completely negate, the protection of privacy rights guaranteed by the meaningful opportunity element, as it would leave the application of this exception entirely at the discretion of the police without any possibility of review.

Applying the new rule to the facts of the case, the court concluded the police were justified in placing the defendant in their car for safety reasons and preventing him from reentering the detained vehicle during the investigative detention, but that they were not permitted to undertake a warrantless registration search. The court noted that adhering to the meaningful opportunity prerequisite in such circumstances does not hinder the police’s ability to investigate whether a car is stolen, as they can obtain the necessary information contained in the paper registration certificate by conducting a lookup in the Motor Vehicle Commission database.

The court also addressed the impact of a recent revision to N.J.S.A. 39:3-29, the statute that outlines a motorist’s obligation to possess and present a registration certificate to the police during a motor vehicle stop and serves as the foundation for the registration search exception to the warrant requirement. Under the revised statutory framework, motorists are no longer obligated to carry a physical copy of the vehicle registration certificate. Instead, they are now permitted to possess and present the registration certificate in either paper or electronic form. To prevent fruitless searches for a physical document that may not even exist and is not required to be kept in the vehicle, going forward, police officers may not enter a detained vehicle under the authority of the registration search exception to search for a paper document without first inquiring whether the registration is kept in paper or electronic form.

Contact Our NJ Defense Attorneys

Protect your rights. If you are the driver of a personal vehicle or the owner, you have what is known as an expectation of privacy and “standing” to suppress searches. For questions regarding criminal defense of traffic and warrantless searches, contact Stahl Gasiorowski Criminal Defense Lawyers. Our offices are located in Westfield, New Jersey and Manhattan. Contact us online or call us at 908-301-9001.