The plain view exception to the search warrant requirement can be applied to warrantless searches of vehicles according to the New Jersey Appellate Division in State v. Reininger, WL 2149760 (May 20, 2013) .
Dustin Reininger was asleep in his SUV while parked in a Wachovia Bank parking lot at around 3:00 in the morning. Readington Township Police Officer Gregory Wester drove by and noticed Reininger in his vehicle. Wester approached Reininger who had trouble answering questions and could only provide a Texas driver’s license without vehicle registration or proof of insurance.
Wester saw that Reininger had a number of things sitting in the backseat of the car and asked if there was anything illegal or any firearms in the pile. Reininger told him there wasn’t, but the officer could see nylon firearm cases among the items.
After asking a second time if there were any firearms in the car, Reininger admitted he did have some firearms he was transporting to Texas which were registered in that state. Wester asked for consent to search the car and Reininger denied his request. Despite this, the officer went ahead and opened the back door and removed the two nylon firearm cases, claiming he did so for safety reasons.
Later on, Wester got a search warrant for the vehicle and discovered twenty-one different firearms as well as different types of ammunition.
Before trial, Reininger filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained without a search warrant, which the trial court denied. The New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the ruling under the plain view exception.
This exception requires “the police officer must be lawfully in the viewing area, the officer has to discover the evidence ‘inadvertently,’ meaning that he did not know in advance where evidence was located nor intend beforehand so seize it, and it has to be ‘immediately apparent’ to the police that the items in plain view were evidence of a crime, contraband, or otherwise subject to seizure.” State v. Bruzzese, 94 N.J. 210, 236 (1983).
According to the Court, Wester satisfied all the first two requirements because he was lawfully conducting a field inquiry and had no idea Reininger had anything in the car when he first approached. The third requirement was also satisfied because Reininger denied have firearms in the car then changed his answer to say that he did have them, but was transporting them to Texas, the Court found that the officer had “probable cause to believe that defendant possessed firearms in violation of the law.”
Thus, the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress was affirmed.