Court clarifies rules regarding passengers in a stopped motor vehicle

Professional Development

In mid-September, the Appellate Division ruled in State v. Boston (A-4752-17) that “[i]n a routine traffic stop where the driver has to be arrested on an open traffic warrant, the officer’s asking whether a passenger is a licensed driver is reasonable; but when the passenger claims he does not possess a license, the officer’s further demand for identification from the unlicensed passenger in the absence of particularized suspicion is not.”

In this case, a random lookup of a license plate revealed that the registered owner of the car had a suspended license and an active traffic warrant. The officer then conducted a motor vehicle stop and requested backup. When the officer approached the vehicle, he noted that there was a male passenger in the front seat and three children in the backseat, along with the female driver. The officer collected the driver’s documents, returned to his patrol car and confirmed the driver was the registered owner with an active traffic warrant. The officer then reapproached the car with the backup officer, who was now at the scene. The driver was removed from the vehicle, and she was arrested on the outstanding warrant.

During the stop, the defendant who was the front seat passenger was asked if he had a valid license. According to the court, “The officer asked whether defendant had a valid driver’s license when he first approached the car, before arresting the driver.” The defendant advised the officer that he did not have a license but that he did have a state ID, which he provided at the request of the police. Based on the information provided by defendant, a computer check revealed that the defendant had a suspended license and an active traffic warrant. After the defendant was placed under arrest, cocaine was discovered in the pocket of his jacket during a search incident to his arrest.

During the course of its opinion, the court concluded that the “car was safely parked and that the defendant’s wife, the registered owner of the car, was satisfied to leave her car and their children in defendant’s care[.]”

In this case, the court took issue with whether the officer lawfully commanded the defendant, a passenger, to produce his state ID after the defendant told the officer he did not possess a driver’s license. In this case, the court said, the “defendant, a passenger in his wife’s car, was not free to leave — or to refuse to answer the officer’s ‘demands for directed behavior’ — after police stopped the car on the side of the road.” Accordingly, the court found the defendant to be “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and that “[t]his car stop was most certainly not a field inquiry from which defendant could walk away without providing the officer his identification on demand.”

Considering these facts, the court ruled that “[b]ecause the driver had to be arrested on the open traffic warrant, we find nothing improper in the arresting officer asking defendant, the only other adult in the car, if he possessed a valid driver’s license.

“That inquiry was reasonably related in scope to the driver’s suspended license, the circumstance which justified the car stop in the first instance, and the subsequently confirmed warrant for her arrest. Because the driver could not legally drive the car away, it was reasonable for the officer to inquire whether defendant was in a position to do so.”

However, the court found it to be unreasonable to demand to see defendant’s state ID or to request his personal information once the defendant told the officer he wasn’t a licensed driver. The Court stated, “we fail to see the justification for the officer demanding to see defendant’s state ID or requiring him to provide his name and date of birth after defendant said he did not possess a driver’s license, but only a state ID.

“Because defendant was not seeking to drive the car away, there was no need to ‘confirm’ defendant was unlicensed or [to] ‘make sure’ the license [the] defendant claimed not to have ‘wasn’t actually valid so [the officers] could turn the vehicle over to [the defendant]. [The] defendant expressed no intent to operate the vehicle, and he didn’t need to be licensed in order to accept custody of it from the driver, the registered owner.”

The court also stated that if the “defendant had declared himself a licensed driver who could drive the car away with the owner’s consent, it would have been reasonable and within the scope of the stop for the officer to ask to see the license and to verify its validity in a license lookup.”