Can a Defendant Have a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in a Stolen Motor Vehicle?

Rispoli & Borneo P.C.

Elizabeth NJ Criminal Attorney

The New Jersey Appellate Division Weighs In!

As an experienced Elizabeth NJ Criminal Attorney, you are continuously dealing with evidence seized from a motor vehicle.  Most of the time, the vehicle involved is owned by the driver or the passenger.  Sometimes the vehicle involved is stolen.  Recently, the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the issue of whether a defendant has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in a stolen vehicle, which would give rise to the need for a search warrant.  State v. Taylor, A-1883-13T4.<
The facts in State v. Taylor are straight forward.  On April 18, 2012, at approximately 1:28 am, Taylor was the backseat passenger in a white Lexus ES 350 bearing New York plates, which was traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike.  The vehicle was being operated by Lastacia Harmon. Louis Bailey was the front seat passenger.  The vehicle was pulled over by Troopers Goncalves and Brown, because it was travelling at a high rate of speed and swerving in the left lane.

When the Troopers approached the vehicle, Harmon provided a driver’s license but could not locate the registration.  She informed the Troopers that the vehicle was not hers.  After further investigation, the Troopers determined that the plates on the vehicle belonged to a black 2011 Optima Kia.  In addition, a search of the VIN revealed that the Lexus was reported stolen from Atlantic City approximately five months earlier.  Based upon the totality of the information available, the Troopers arrested all three occupants and searched the vehicle’s passenger compartment and trunk.  They found two handguns.

Defendant Taylor filed a motion to suppress arguing that the search was illegal because the Troopers had failed to obtain a search warrant.  In making this argument, Taylor took the position that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the stolen vehicle.  The Trial Court denied the motion finding that Taylor did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the stolen vehicle.  Citing State v. Lugo, 249 N.J. Super 565 (App. Div. 1999), the trial Judge found that as a matter of law a defendant could not have a “reasonable” expectation of privacy in a stolen vehicle.  Taylor appealed.

The Appellate Division refused to establish a bright line rule that a defendant could never have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a stolen vehicle.  It acknowledged that in State v. Lugo, the Court found that there can never be a reasonable expectation of privacy in a motor vehicle that was known to be stolen. Id. at 568.  However, in this matter there was no evidence that Taylor knew the vehicle was stolen.  Therefore, the Court concluded that the matter had to be sent back to the trial court for a determination of whether Taylor had knowledge that the vehicle was stolen.

In reaching its decision, the Court focused on Article I, Section 7 of the New Jersey Constitution and noted that the inquiry is whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.  It pointed out that this is a fact sensitive inquiry, which is not amenable to a bright line rule.  Accordingly, in every case where there is a stolen vehicle involved the trial court must determine the defendant’s knowledge regarding ownership of the vehicle.  If the vehicle is known to be stolen there is no reasonable expectation of privacy and no warrant is necessary.  If, however, the defendant has no knowledge that the vehicle is stolen, it is possible that he/she has a reasonable expectation of privacy and a search warrant would be necessary to avoid suppression of all evidence seized.

An Elizabeth NJ criminal attorney’s understanding of when to file a motion to suppress, and whether a search warrant is necessary for the search of a motor vehicle, is essential to defendant’s chance of avoiding a conviction.  If you have been charged with a crime and the police executed a search of your home or motor vehicle, it is critical that you get legal advice from an experienced Elizabeth NJ criminal attorney at Rispoli & Borneo, PC.  We have the experience and legal knowledge to guide you through the system and aggressively raise every defense.