State v KeatonIn a unanimous new ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, judges ruled that police officers must give drivers the opportunity to provide their insurance and registration information after an accident, and cannot search the car without a warrant to do so.  This adds on to an earlier 1980 case of similar circumstances.

What Happened: The case arose out of a dispute beginning in March 2009 when a driver was charged with marijuana and gun possession that a state trooper discovered in his car while the defendant was being treated by paramedics. He looked in the glove compartment to find insurance and registration documents, where they were then found. While doing so, he discovered marijuana on the dashboard and the handgun in a backpack.

Who’s Who: Defendant Duran Keaton was arrested following the accident on Route 295 in Camden County by Trooper William Jacobs. When Jacobs arrived at the scene, Keaton was being treated for facial injuries, and his car was overturned in the median.

Legal Precedent: In a 1980 case, State v. Patino, the NJ court ruled that police could search a car for the driver’s license and registration in the event that they were unwilling to so, or incapacitated to they extent that they could not search. The difference in the Keaton case, Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina wrote on behalf of the court, was that Jacobs did not provide Keaton with the opportunity to do so.

It is a legal requirement for police officers responding to the scene of automobile collisions to receive information about license plates, insurance, vehicle ID numbers, as well as the names and addresses of those parties involved in the accident.

The Ruling: Because the officer had not received a warrant to search the car, judges ruled that he could not use the evidence obtained at that time for any drugs or weapons charges. The court determined that the items found in the car did not fall under the doctrine of plain view, and as such were seized illegally. Had Keaton been provided an opportunity to receive the information himself, or had he given Jacobs permission to search, it would have been a different case entirely.  This returns the responsibility to the officer to provide the defendant with every opportunity to present his own documents.

The Other Side: According to prosecutors and the Attorney General’s Office, Jacobs acted responsibly by obtaining the necessary documentation on his own, since Keaton was undergoing medical attention, with which he did not want to interfere. Keaton had stated that he didn’t want to waste the paramedic’s time with “silly questions”, such as if he was permitted to enter the vehicle to obtain insurance and registration information.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, Peter Aseltine, said that the trooper made the correct and responsible decision not to interfere with ongoing medical treatment and that doing so may have been harmful to Keaton’s physical wellbeing.  Officials expressed frustration and disappointment with the decision.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, seek legal assistance immediately. Call me, defense attorney David C. Barry, at (732) 238-8686 to discuss your situation.