475 U.S. 106 (1986), 84-1181, New York v. Class

Docket Nº:No. 84-1181
Citation:475 U.S. 106, 106 S.Ct. 960, 89 L.Ed.2d 81, 54 U.S.L.W. 4178
Party Name:New York v. Class
Case Date:February 25, 1986
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 106

475 U.S. 106 (1986)

106 S.Ct. 960, 89 L.Ed.2d 81, 54 U.S.L.W. 4178

New York

v.

Class

No. 84-1181

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 25, 1986

Argued November 4, 1985

CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS OF NEW YORK

Syllabus

When two New York City police officers observed respondent driving above the speed limit in a car with a cracked windshield, both traffic violations under New York law, they stopped him. He then emerged from the car and approached one of the officers. The other officer opened the car door to look for the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which is located on the left doorjamb in pre-1969 automobiles. When the officer did not find the VIN on the doorjamb, he reached into the car's interior to move some papers obscuring the area of the dashboard where the VIN is located on later model automobiles. In doing so, the officer saw the handle of a gun [106 S.Ct. 962] protruding from underneath the driver's seat and seized the gun. Respondent was then arrested. After the state trial court denied a motion to suppress the gun as evidence, respondent was convicted of criminal possession of a weapon. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court upheld the conviction, but the New York Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, in the absence of any justification for the search of respondent's car besides the traffic violations, the search was prohibited and the gun must accordingly be excluded from evidence.

Held:

1. The New York Court of Appeals' decision did not rest on an adequate and independent state ground, so as to deprive this Court of jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals' opinion, which mentions the New York Constitution only once and then in direct conjunction with the Federal Constitution, and which makes use of both federal and New York cases in its analysis, lacks the requisite "plain statement" that it rests on state grounds. Moreover, in determining that the search in question was prohibited, the court looked to the Federal Constitution, and not to a state statute that authorizes officers to demand that drivers reveal their VIN, merely holding that that statute provided no justification for a search. Pp. 109-110.

2. The police officer's action in searching respondent's car did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 111-119.

(a) Because of the important role played by the VIN in the pervasive governmental regulation of automobiles and the efforts by the Federal Government through regulations to assure that the VIN is placed in plain view, respondent had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the

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VIN. The placement of the papers obscuring the VIN was insufficient to create a privacy interest in the VIN. Pp. 111-114.

(b) The officer's search was sufficiently unintrusive to be constitutionally permissible in light of respondent's lack of a reasonable expectation of privacy in the VIN, the fact that the officers observed respondent commit two traffic violations, and concerns for the officers' safety. Pp. 114-119.

63 N.Y.2d 491, 472 N.E.2d 1009, reversed and remanded.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, and in Part II of which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 120. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 122. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 131.

O'CONNOR, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we must decide whether, in order to observe a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) generally visible from outside an automobile, a police officer may reach into the passenger compartment of a vehicle to move papers obscuring the VIN after its driver has been stopped for a traffic violation and has exited the car. We hold that, in these circumstances, the police officer's action does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

I

On the afternoon of May 11, 1981, New York City police officers Lawrence Meyer and William McNamee observed respondent

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Benigno Class driving above the speed limit in a car with a cracked windshield. Both driving with a cracked windshield and speeding are traffic violations under New York law. See N.Y.Veh. & Traf.Law §§ 375(22), 1180(d) (McKinney 1970). [106 S.Ct. 963] Respondent followed the officers' ensuing directive to pull over. Respondent then emerged from his car and approached Officer Meyer. Officer McNamee went directly to respondent's vehicle. Respondent provided Officer Meyer with a registration certificate and proof of insurance, but stated that he had no driver's license.

Meanwhile, Officer McNamee opened the door of respondent's car to look for the VIN, which is located on the left doorjamb in automobiles manufactured before 1969. When the officer did not find the VIN on the doorjamb, he reached into the interior of respondent's car to move some papers obscuring the area of the dashboard where the VIN is located in later model automobiles. In doing so, Officer McNamee saw the handle of a gun protruding about one inch from underneath the driver's seat. The officer seized the gun, and respondent was promptly arrested. Respondent was also issued summonses for his traffic violations.

It is undisputed that the police officers had no reason to suspect that respondent's car was stolen, that it contained contraband, or that respondent had committed an offense other than the traffic violations. Nor is it disputed that respondent committed the traffic violations with which he was charged, and that, as of the day of the arrest, he had not been issued a valid driver's license.

After the state trial court denied a motion to suppress the gun as evidence, respondent was convicted of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree. See N.Y. Penal Law § 265.02(4) (McKinney 1980). The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court upheld the conviction without opinion. 97 App.Div.2d 741, 468 N.Y.S.2d 892 (1983). The New York Court of Appeals reversed. It reasoned that the police officer's "intrusion . . . was undertaken to obtain

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information and it exposed . . . hidden areas" of the car, and "therefore constituted a search." 63 N.Y.2d 491, 495, 472 N.E.2d 1009, 1011 (1984). Although it recognized that a search for a VIN generally involves a minimal intrusion because of its limited potential locations, and agreed that there is a compelling law enforcement interest in positively identifying vehicles involved in accidents or automobile thefts, the court thought it decisive that the facts of this case "reveal no reason for the officer to suspect other criminal activity [besides the traffic infractions] or to act to protect his own safety." Id. at 495-496, 472 N.E.2d at 1012. The state statutory provision that authorizes officers to demand that drivers reveal their VIN "provided no justification for the officer's entry of [respondent's] car." Id. at 497, 472 N.E.2d at 1013. If the officer had taken advantage of that statute and asked to see the VIN, respondent could have moved the papers away himself, and no intrusion would have occurred. In the absence of any justification for the search besides the traffic infractions, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the gun must be excluded from evidence.

We granted certiorari, 471 U.S. 1003 (1985), and now reverse.

II

Respondent asserts that this Court is without jurisdiction to hear this case because the decision of the New York Court of Appeals rests on an adequate and independent state ground. We disagree.

The opinion of the New York Court of Appeals mentions the New York Constitution but once, and then only in direct conjunction with the United States Constitution. 63 N.Y.2d at 493, 472 N.E.2d at 1010. Cf. Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1043 (1983). The opinion below makes use of both federal and New York cases in its analysis, generally citing both for the same proposition. See, e.g., 63 N.Y.2d at 494, 495, 472 N.E.2d at 1011. The opinion lacks the requisite "plain statement" that it rests on state grounds.

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Michigan v. Long, supra, at 1042, 1044. [106 S.Ct. 964] Accordingly, our holding in Michigan v. Long is directly applicable here:

[W]hen . . . a state court decision fairly appears to rest primarily on federal law, or to be interwoven with the federal law, and when the adequacy and independence of any possible state law ground is not clear from the face of the opinion, we will accept as the most reasonable explanation that the state court decided the case the way it did because it believed that federal law required it to do so.

463 U.S. at 1040-1041. See also California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 389, n. 1 (1985).

Respondent's claim that the opinion below rested on independent and adequate state statutory grounds is also without merit. The New York Court of Appeals did not hold that § 401 of New York's Vehicle and Traffic Law prohibited the search at issue here, but, in rejecting an assertion of petitioner, merely held that § 401 "provided no justification" for a search. 63 N.Y.2d at 497, 472 N.E.2d at 1013 (emphasis added). In determining that the police officer's action was prohibited, the court below looked to the Federal Constitution, not the State's statute. Moreover, New York adheres to the general rule that, when statutory construction can resolve a case, courts should not decide constitutional issues. See Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 346-347 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring); In re Peters v. New York City Housing Authority, 307 N.Y. 519, 527, 121 N.E.2d 529, 531 (1954). Since the New...

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