State v. Welsh

Citation419 A.2d 1123,84 N.J. 346
PartiesSTATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. John WELSH, Jr., Defendant-Respondent.
Decision Date18 September 1980
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)

James T. O'Halloran, Deputy Atty. Gen., for plaintiff-appellant (John J. Degnan, Atty. Gen., attorney).

James A. Vigliotti, Asst. Deputy Public Defender, for defendant-respondent (Stanley C. Van Ness, Public Defender, attorney).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

CLIFFORD, J.

The issue presented by this appeal is whether the police may constitutionally conduct a warrantless search of an automobile when the driver is stopped on a public highway and arrested pursuant to a lawful arrest warrant. Under the circumstances of this case the question must be answered in the negative. We reaffirm that the scope of a search incident to an arrest must be limited to the person of the arrestee and the area within his immediate control, as mandated by Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752, 89 S.Ct. 2034, 23 L.Ed.2d 685 (1969).

I

On November 26, 1976 New Jersey State Police Officer Thomas R. Spivey and his partner stationed themselves in the parking lot of a New Brunswick bowling alley. They had obtained a warrant for the arrest of defendant, John Welsh, Jr., eight days earlier and had been informed that he would be at the bowling alley that day to pick up a bowling ball.1 In plain clothes and in an unmarked car, the troopers waited four or five hours for Welsh to arrive. About an hour before the troopers arrested defendant, they called for uniformed State Police to assist them in executing the arrest warrant. When Welsh came out of the bowling alley, he drove his car, a 1975 MG Midget, onto an adjacent highway. Thereupon the uniformed trooper signalled Welsh to stop, and Officer Spivey and his partner pulled up behind Welsh's car. After identifying himself as a New Jersey State Trooper, Officer Spivey read Welsh the arrest warrant, ordered him out of the car, and informed him of his Miranda rights. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966).

After that, according to Spivey's testimony, the troopers "had a problem" with Welsh because of the presence in his car of his two or three year old son. The officers determined that they could avoid any difficulty arising from the boy's presence by allowing defendant to drive his car back to the State Police barracks in Princeton. Accordingly, Spivey "checked the vehicle to make sure there was nothing in the vehicle that would be destroyed in-ride * * *." He searched the interior of the car, looking for "any evidence or any fruits of the crime of bookmaking." Being familiar with the design of the MG Midget, Spivey reached up behind the dashboard and uncovered two envelopes secreted in the maze of wires there. The envelopes contained money and betting slips.

Upon discovery of this contraband, the troopers changed their plan and transported Welsh and his son to the police station in a police car.2 Defendant's car was towed to the station.

Welsh was charged with a variety of bookmaking and conspiracy offenses. His motion to suppress the evidence found in the search of his car was denied. The trial judge reasoned that considering the factual circumstances surrounding the arrest and the nature of the charges, "wisdom would dictate that they search the vehicle first to see if there was contraband in it before allowing him to get back in it."

Pursuant to a plea bargain defendant thereafter pleaded guilty to possession of lottery slips in violation of N.J.S.A. 2A:121-3 and conspiracy to violate the lottery laws contrary to N.J.S.A. 2A:98-1 and -2 (superseded by N.J.S.A. 2C:37-1 to -9 (gambling) and 2C:5-2 (conspiracy)). The remaining counts of the indictment were dismissed on recommendation of the State. Defendant was sentenced to two to three years in New Jersey State Prison.

On appeal the Appellate Division reversed the trial court's denial of defendant's suppression motion, vacated the guilty pleas, and reinstated the dismissed counts of the indictment. In doing so it rejected the State's attempt to characterize the search as incident to an arrest or as reasonable in light of the totality of the circumstances. The court held that the police could not be permitted to benefit from circumstances of their own making, relying on Chimel v. California, supra, and United States v. Griffith, 537 F.2d 900 (7th Cir. 1976). 167 N.J.Super. 233, 236-37, 400 A.2d 811 (1979). We granted certification, 81 N.J. 280, 405 A.2d 824 (1979), and now affirm.

II

As we recently observed in State v. Patino, 83 N.J. 1, 414 A.2d 1327 (1980):

The prima facie invalidity of any warrantless search is overcome only if that search falls within one of the specific exceptions created by the United States Supreme Court. Where, as here, the State seeks to validate a warrantless search, it bears the burden of bringing it within one of those exceptions. (Id. at 7, 414 A.2d at 1330 (citations omitted).)

In this case the State seeks to justify the search under the "automobile exception" to the Warrant Clause, Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 45 S.Ct. 280, 69 L.Ed. 543 (1925), or alternatively as incident to a lawful arrest pursuant to an arrest warrant, Chimel v. California, supra. We consider the contentions in that order.

III

The State looks first to the automobile exception to validate the warrantless search here. Under that exception, first articulated in Carroll v. United States, supra, the police can stop and search a moving or readily movable vehicle when there is probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of criminality. As noted in Patino, supra, the exigent circumstances created by the inherent mobility of vehicles and the somewhat lessened expectations of privacy in one's vehicle furnish the rationales for this exception. 83 N.J. at 9-10, 414 A.2d 1327; see Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 441-43, 93 S.Ct. 2523, 2529, 37 L.Ed.2d 706, 715 (1973).

As is readily apparent, an essential ingredient of the automobile exception is probable cause to believe a "car contains articles that the police are entitled to seize." Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 48, 90 S.Ct. 1975, 1979, 26 L.Ed.2d 419, 426 (1970); see Patino, supra, 83 N.J. at 10, 414 A.2d 1327. Addressing the "probable cause" requirement, the State contends that the nature of the offenses for which the defendant was arrested-particularly the unlawful possession and sale of lottery slips-"bears significantly on the reasonableness of the belief that defendant's car could contain contraband." In part the argument hinges on the premise that there are a variety of ways in which an automobile can serve as an instrumentality of the offense of possession of lottery slips.

Although these contentions have a certain conceptual validity, they hardly serve to carry the State's heavy burden of establishing such probable cause as would justify the search in this case. See Patino, supra, 83 N.J. at 13, 414 A.2d 1327. While it is no doubt true that an automobile is an instrumentality of gamblers, the peripatetic nature of an illicit activity does not supplant the constitutional protection accorded to all members of society, whether roving or rooted. The fact that participants in bookmaking operations use automobiles does not, without more, give the police free rein to search vehicles at will. Similarly, the presence of an eight day-old arrest warrant does not alone provide probable cause to search the automobile of the arrestee. While in some cases the element of probable cause justifying a warrantless arrest will also justify a warrantless search, see, e. g., Chambers v. Maroney, supra, 399 U.S. at 47 n. 6, 90 S.Ct. at 1979 n. 6, 26 L.Ed.2d at 426, this is not such a case. Indeed, the circumstances here appear to support the converse proposition, namely, if the police had probable cause to believe the automobile was an instrument of illicit activity, they should have obtained an arrest warrant for that activity. State v. Ercolano, 79 N.J. 25, 46-47, 397 A.2d 1062 (1979).

Accordingly, the search of the car has not been justified as within the automobile exception, and therefore the evidence seized must be suppressed unless admissible on some other grounds.

IV

The State also seeks to justify the vehicle search as incident to the arrest of the defendant. The rationale for and permissible scope of such searches are authoritatively defined by the United States Supreme Court in Chimel v. California, supra, in this key section from the opinion When an arrest is made, it is reasonable for the arresting officer to search the person arrested in order to remove any weapons that the latter might seek to use in order to resist arrest or effect his escape. Otherwise, the officer's safety might well be endangered, and the arrest itself frustrated. In addition, it is entirely reasonable for the arresting officer to search for and seize any evidence on the arrestee's person in order to prevent its concealment or destruction. And the area into which an arrestee might reach in order to grab a weapon or evidentiary items must, of course, be governed by a like rule. A gun on a table or in a drawer in front of one who is arrested can be as dangerous to the arresting officer as one concealed in the clothing of the person arrested. There is ample justification, therefore, for a search of the arrestee's person and the area "within his immediate control"-construing that phrase to mean the area from within which he might gain possession of a weapon or destructible evidence.

There is no comparable justification, however, for routinely searching any room other than that in which an arrest occurs-or, for that matter, for searching through all the desk drawers or other closed or concealed areas in that room itself. Such searches, in the absence of well-recognized exceptions, may be made only under the authority of a search warrant. The...

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