The Fourth Amendment protects people’s fundamental right to be free from unnecessary governmental intrusion into private spaces. The state may not conduct unreasonable searches of people’s homes, cars, or businesses and seize personal property without probable cause or a warrant. What is unreasonable is the subject of case law since the country’s inception. In a recent New Jersey Supreme Court case, State vs. Williams, the Court determined when police investigations should end after a motor data terminal (MDT) identifies the vehicle owner’s revoked driver’s license, but the vehicle driver is not the owner.

A Deeper Look into the State vs. Williams Case

In Williams, the Supreme Court crafted a rule for police officers making MDT stops only to find the vehicle driver is not the registered owner. The police officers, in this case, ran an MDT on the Nissan Williams drove. Williams had not violated any traffic laws. However, the officers found the vehicle registered to someone with a revoked license. The owner was a female, but when the officers pulled Williams over, they found two males in the car. Nevertheless, Officer Kless asked for Williams’ license, insurance, and registration.

At the trial, Officer Kless testified that he smelled marijuana after approaching the vehicle’s passenger side, though admittedly through a stuffed nose. The officers at the scene had Williams and his codefendant step out of the car while they called for backup with a dog sniffer that identified marijuana in the vehicle. They also found a firearm in the car. The officers performed a pat down search and arrested both. Williams fled, but the officers caught him and arrested him.

Throughout the detention, Williams protested that the officers had no consent from the owner to search the vehicle. The officers replied that they didn’t need one. At the trial, the defendants’ lawyers moved to suppress evidence obtained from the search, but the judge denied the motion. The defendants faced unlawful possession of weapons charges, and the jury convicted them.

The defendants filed an appeal based on the suppression motion denial, an erroneous gun possession jury instruction, and the police cam video introduction to the jury that heard the defendant’s complaints about the search. The defense’s central claim was that the police violated their Fourth Amendment rights by unreasonably prolonging the stop. The state responded that the officers could continue the stop to examine the driver’s documents.

The NJ Supreme Court’s Decision on Stopping Vehicles and Investigating Drivers after License Checks

The appellate Court confirmed the trial court ruling and the jury verdict, but the Supreme Court of New Jersey disagreed. The Court first examined case law on the legality of stopping a vehicle based on an MDT. It ruled that stopping a car based on an MDT turning up a suspended or revoked license is enough reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle. However, once an officer sees that the vehicle occupant or occupants do not fit the description of the one with the revoked or suspended license, they must refrain from further investigation and let the driver go.

The Court considered that officers only sometimes have a clear view of a driver in the dark or in conditions that make identification possible. In those cases, the Court ruled that a case-by-case consideration was necessary. But when it is evident that the registered owner and the vehicle driver or passenger are not the same people, they must discontinue the detention.

Discovering Evidence and Lawfully Detaining Individuals during MDT Checks

The Court noted that there might be instances when an officer detains a vehicle after an MDT check raises a reasonable suspicion of a possible driver without a valid license, and in the course of the stop, the officer discovers evidence of another crime underway, like a gun, or smell of alcohol, or drugs in plain view. Law enforcement is not obliged to ignore the evidence but can further detain the occupants to conduct a reasonable investigation for a reasonable period of time.

What the police cannot do is continue investigating when there is no reasonable suspicion of a crime. The Court determined that Officer Klee’s testimony that he smelled marijuana, even when another officer said he did not, was insufficient evidence to raise a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify further detention or a search and seizure. But first, the Court validated the legality of an MDT stop.

Getting Perspective from Previous Cases

The Court first weighed the state’s legitimate interest in keeping roadways safe by checking for licensed drivers, against the unreasonable intrusion into an individual’s privacy. The Court in Delaware v. Prouse required an officer’s reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing to make a discretionary stop, meaning one where a traffic violation or other evidence of unlawful behavior did not justify pursuit. And yet, Glover vs. Kansas gave officers reasonable suspicion grounds to stop a vehicle with a driver suspected of driving on a suspended license. In other words, officers could assume the driver was the vehicle owner that they searched in the revoked or suspended license database.

The Court’s discussion about a revoked license in Kansas supports law enforcement’s reasonable suspicion for a stop. An officer rightly assumes that a driver who drives on a suspended or revoked license disregards the law and, thus, is breaking the law by driving with a revoked license at the time of the detention. Statistics show that drivers still drive on suspended or revoked licenses, supporting the assumption that a driver could be the registered owner on the road illegally.

However, Justice Kagan in Glover noted that the analysis would be different if the officers found a license suspension or revocation from another state that suspended licenses for reasons unrelated to driving laws, such as parking tickets, child support, and court fees. Kansas saved revocation for serious offenses but suspensions for matters unrelated to motor vehicle laws. New Jersey does not distinguish between revocation and suspension, so either could be for non-serious or severe offenses.

The Glover court noted that the outcome (the prolonged MDT stop and arrest was warranted) would be different if the officers could clearly see that the driver and owner were not the same by clear objective evidence of age, gender, race, etc. The Court then announced the rule for officers in conducting a stop based on an MDT and its limitations. The Court reversed the appellate court decision, ruling the suppression motion should have been granted, but denied the jury instruction and cam recorder introduction objections. The case was remanded to the trial court.

When Should the Inspection Proceed or Stop Based on a Revoked License in NJ?

The new rule for officers pursuing revoked or suspended license drivers from computer-based searches is that an initial stop based on the MDT search is reasonable and authorized. However, once an officer sees that the driver could not reasonably be the vehicle owner by the photo and description in the computer as compared to the driver’s license and appearance, the detention must cease. They must not linger, ask for documents, or stay there to examine them. However, while the stop is legal, meaning the time for the officer to look at the driver and see that the driver is not the owner, an officer may detain the driver for a reasonable time to investigate plain view criminal evidence.

The Fourth Amendment and Your Rights Regarding Stop and Search

The Court essentially defended the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights to be free of government intrusion, which occurs once the officers have no reason to continue a stop. Law enforcement cannot detain someone without a reasonable suspicion of a legal violation. They cannot wait around until they find evidence. That would be an unreasonable search and seizure. Thus, defendants in New Jersey must be aware that they can be stopped legally by an MDT search of a suspended or revoked license. However, once the officer determines that the driver is not the owner, they must let the driver go in the absence of other evidence of violations.

Talk to an Experienced Criminal Attorney if You Have been Charged after a License Suspension Check in New Jersey

Many criminal defenses rest on police pushing the limits or misinterpreting the limits of a police detention, search, and seizure. For this reason, a criminal defense attorney must examine the facts and evidence after their client’s arrest. Fourth Amendment violations occur all too often, and a motion to suppress keeps illegally obtained evidence implicating a defendant from reaching a jury. Our job as criminal defense lawyers is to ensure that our clients get fair trials, to protect the rights they are due under the constitution, and to ensure that the prosecution’s case does not hinge on evidence arising from illegal state activity. Contact 973-524-7238 to talk to a criminal defense attorney after an MDT-based stop and arrest on New Jersey roadways. We represent clients in Dover, Mount Olive, Morristown, East Hanover, Denville, Chatham, Madison, and other towns in the Morris County area.