At times, there may be a need for an officer to open the door of a vehicle that they have stopped or that is otherwise on the scene of an incident. However, officers must remember that our courts have long held that the opening of a vehicle’s door constitutes a warrantless search (see State v. Woodson, 236 N.J. Super. 537 (App. Div. 1989)). There are a few cases that serve as a guide, including a recent Appellate Division decision in State v. Gray, Docket No. A-2843-19 (Dec. 20, 2022).
The recent decision in State v. Gray stems from an investigation into a luxury-car theft ring, in which the defendant was not the target of the investigation. The interaction between the police and the defendant occurred during a meeting arranged by a confidential informant (CI) in a parking lot on a cold January day. The police were on the scene in four unmarked cars, with two officers in each vehicle. In addition, the CI who arranged the meeting was wearing a concealed recording device that was being monitored by the officers conducting the investigation.
The officers’ objective was to seize what they believed to be a stolen Mercedes-Benz from the target.
Using the information obtained through their CI, the police expected the target of their investigation to arrive in a tow truck with a Mercedes-Benz attached, or in a car following the tow truck. Instead, the target and another man arrived in a silver Toyota 4Runner that was driven by the defendant but owned by the defendant’s girlfriend. The three men exited the Toyota and pursued the CI, who ran. An altercation followed, but the officers quickly intervened, weapons drawn, and detained and handcuffed all four men, including the CI. The police then placed all of the men, except the defendant, in three of the unmarked police cars present. Taking care to preserve the CI’s cover, the police placed him in the unmarked car that contained the surveillance and recording equipment.
Then, the defendant was led to the Toyota in handcuffs by the police. The officer opened the passenger door of the Toyota without the defendant’s consent and placed him on the passenger seat, with the door remaining open. At the suppression hearing, the officer testified that the police detained the four men inside vehicles rather than leaving them outside in the parking lot because it was cold that night. An officer remained present outside the Toyota to monitor the defendant as other officers attempted to learn why the men were attempting to assault the CI. During this time, an officer smelled burned marijuana (this happened prior to the decriminalization of marijuana) emanating from the Toyota’s open passenger compartment.
The police then sought consent to search the Toyota from the defendant, who refused twice but then consented to the search the third time he was asked. After providing his consent, the defendant was moved to an unoccupied police vehicle, and the search was conducted. During the search, police located a backpack with a loaded gun, but they did not locate any marijuana-related evidence. The defendant was arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm and later admitted the gun was his.
In this appeal, the defendant argued that the officer’s opening of the Toyota’s front passenger-side door constituted an unconstitutional search, and any evidence resulting from that search must be suppressed. The court agreed with the defendant’s argument and stated in its opinion that “[t]here can be no dispute that the opening of the door constituted a warrantless search. We consider the question of whether [the officer’s] act of opening the door constituted an impermissible search. [T]he record shows [the officer] opened the vehicle door without defendant’s consent or probable cause.” Ibid. (Internal citations omitted)
It should also be noted that the state presented an argument that the cold January night provided the officer with a “justifiable reason” for opening the car door. Regarding this, the court stated, “[w]e are not persuaded by the State’s argument, and we decline to make constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure contingent upon the vagaries of the weather.”