Updated Feb. 27 2019
Article by Daniel A. Levy, Esq.
Gun crimes and issues regarding carrying firearms and possessing weapons have been heavily covered by news sources lately. And our clients in New Jersey may have lots of questions about transporting guns in their cars and whether police may search a car for guns. Recently, the Appellate Division case of State v. Reininger has been published and received some news attention – a retired police officer was stopped in New Jersey with several guns in his car, and he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison. Below we will discuss the Reininger case and illustrate 3 key points about talking to police, searches of vehicles, and transporting firearms.
How to legally transport guns in New Jersey
In the case of Dustin S. Reininger, a former police officer who was in the process of moving from Maine to Texas, there were approximately 12 firearms in the vehicle. Some were in closed plastic cases, some were in zippered nylon bags (the type illustrated in the photo above), some were in “socks” (a soft sock-like covering that sheathes the firearm and closes with Velcro), and one handgun may have been stashed behind the driver’s seat and not in any kind of case. Some were loaded and some were not loaded. Reininger was parked in a well-lit parking lot during the night, with the ignition off, and sleeping under a blanket in the driver’s seat during his move. l off the road in an empty, well-lit parking lot. At 3:25am, Officer Gregory Wester knocked on his window and woke him up, shining a flashlight in his eyes. Officer Wester testified that Reininger appeared “nervous and tired.” The policeman asked Reininger whether he was carrying anything illegal. “No, no, all good,” Reininger replied. Officer Wester then looked inside the SUV with his flashlight noticed two nylon cases in the back seat, which to him were the kind of cases used to carry long arms. The officer radioed for backup. After some more questioning, Reininger eventually admitted that they did contain firearms and that he was moving them to his new home in Texas.
New Jersey is not a “carry State” meaning the general rule is that you are not allowed to ever carry firearms with you, for any reason, unless there is a legal exception. One of the exceptions according to New Jersey law (and a similar Federal law) is N.J.S.A. 2C:39-6(g), which allows transporting guns of: (1) he was “carrying or
transporting” the firearms “from one residence to another or between his residence and place of business”; (2) “the firearms being transported were carried unloaded”; and (3) “the firearms were contained in a closed and fastened case, gunbox, securely tied package, or locked in the trunk” of defendant’s vehicle. The similar federal law, 18 U.S.C.A § 926A, is more stringent in that it requires that the gun be in a locked container.
So the first point to understand is that the gun must be unloaded. It is clear that carrying a loaded gun in a vehicle is a crime, no matter how it is stored. The second point is a little more interesting. The state law does not require that the gun be locked in a hard container. With Reininger, the officer and the prosecutor argued that the defendant violated the law because the nylon zip bag and the “gun sock” do not qualify as a “closed and fastened case” or “securely tied package” under the law. The jury agreed with the prosecutor and the Appellate Division did not disturb the jury’s conclusion, partly because the driver could have theoretically unzipped or un-Velcro’d the bags and grabbed the guns from the driver seat. The jury did not agree that the guns in the unlocked gunboxes were a crime.
Police Search for Guns in the Back Seat Without a Warrant
Wouldn’t the police need a warrant to search the vehicle? The officer did NOT get a warrant or consent to search the nylon bags holding rifles (the bags that he originally spotted and questioned the driver about). Those bags contained rifles, and allowed the officer to get a warrant via telephone to search the rest of the vehicle.
As a general rule, police need probable cause to believe that there is contraband in the vehicle. They can search after receiving a warrant or knowing, voluntary consent to search. But the officer had neither when he first searched the car. Three other exceptions may apply. First is the “automobile exception” which basically allows police to search a vehicle if they reasonably believe that the driver can and will drive away with the evidence and dispose of it. The Appellate division held that this exception did not apply. At the time, the driver was already outside of the vehicle and backup was on the scene. The second exception is the “community caretaker” exception, which allows limited weapons searches for officer safety and for the safety of civilians in the area. For the same reasons, the Appellate Division rejected that argument.
But the third exception was held to be valid – the “plain view” exception. To satisfy this
exception: (1) “the police officer must be lawfully in the viewing area”; (2) “the officer has to discover the evidence ‘inadvertently,’ meaning that he did not know in advance where evidence was located nor intend beforehand to seize it”; and (3) “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.” The first two elements were clearly satisfied. But the third element was arguably unsatisfied. What crime was readily apparent? Transporting a gun while moving is not necessarily a crime. And the police at the time had no way of knowing that the gun was loaded. This case may be headed to the Supreme Court for this reason.
Getting in Trouble by Talking to the Police
The final takeaway from this case is that Reininger got himself into trouble by saying the wrong things – first he lied to the police and said that there were no guns, and then he voluntarily answered questions and admitted that he had guns in the car. Never lie to police. That alone is a crime. But if concerned that police are interrogating you in order to recover evidence to use against you, you are always allowed to say, “I choose not to answer.” It sounds suspicious, but police and judges may never use silence against you. If Reininger simply refused to answer the questions, the officer may not have been able to legitimately search anything.
New Jersey Gun Crime Defense Attorney – Free Consultation With a Skilled Attorney
Remember, the police and prosecutors have teams of people working to put weapons offenders in jail. In the process, they may overstep their bounds or arrest innocent people. And gun crimes in New Jersey all have mandatory minimum jail sentences. If you have any question or you or a loved one were accused of possession of a controlled dangerous substance, please do not hesitate to contact us for a 100% free consultation.
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