New N.J. vehicle registration law has some drivers worried about privacy, cops looking at their phones

By | August 16, 2023
New N.J. vehicle registration law has some drivers worried about privacy, cops looking at their phones

New Jersey became the third state Monday to allow drivers to show a police officer an electronic copy of their vehicle registration during a traffic stop.

While the actual change could be over a year away, what are the ramifications of handling an unlocked cell phone to an officer to prove your registration is current?

The new law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy follows the lead of two other states passed that allow drivers to show an electronic copy of the registration on a cell phone or tablet.

Readers who commented and emailed NJ Advance Media voiced concerns about that, and whether the new law is an end run around Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Some said they weren’t comfortable handing their unlocked phone over to the police.

A Rutgers University law professor said the new law was written in such a way that will safeguard motorists and avoid a challenge in the state Supreme Court.

“It’s not consent to search your phone,” said Professor Robert F. Williams, Director of the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers. “That is the important one sentence that will keep it from going to the Supreme Court. The legislature foresaw the problem.”

The legislation addresses those concerns and clearly says handling your unlocked phone to a police officer or a judge isn’t consenting to let them search the entire the phone, said Assemblyman Dan Benson, D-Middlesex, one of the laws co-authors.

New Jersey’s law is modeled after similar measures enacted in 2017 in Michigan and 2019 in Tennessee which say clearly state that a driver is not giving consent to allow the entire phone searched.

Michigan’s law goes a step further, by requiring a driver to forward the electronic copy of the registration to a specific location, if the police officer requests it. That allows the officer to examine the registration and determine if it is valid or not that is some place safer than standing on the side of the road.

Does New Jersey’s new law need that addition?

Once (the vehicle has been) stopped, the police can run it thru a database to verify, regardless of format,” Benson said. “So, the Michigan provision doesn’t appear to be needed.”

Michigan’s law also allows drivers to present a digital photograph of their current registration. So does New Jersey’s law, Benson said.

If people drivers are concerned about security, Williams said, they can show the original, paper registration or photo of the registration too.

The U.S. Constitution provides protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. And Article 1, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey State Constitution takes those protections further, Williams said. It requires a search warrant to specifically describe the place to be searched and the items to be seized, he said.

That means the search is limited to that and no more, which also applies to a registration displayed on a cell phone, he said. That includes an incriminating text message that might pop up on the screen because it is not part of the registration check, Williams said.

The New Jersey bill also provides police and judges with protection against claims they damaged the phone or tablet while checking the registration.

Some readers questioned the reason for requiring or checking a registration document when police have automatic license plate readers on patrol cars that scan vehicle license plates and computers that will tell an officer if the vehicle is registered.

In some instances, police check paper registrations is to ensure the driver has the owner’s permission to use the vehicle. It’s also a way to check for stolen vehicles. If a driver lacks the registration or insurance card, that would lead police to check if the vehicle was stolen, police have said in earlier interviews.

Ultimately, technology might provide the solution. One reader suggested using a QR code for registrations that an officer can scan with a mobile scanner or device, so they don’t have to walk away with a driver’s phone.

The state Motor Vehicle Commission has 18 months to design an electronic registration with the appropriate security and fraud safeguards.

Would Williams use the phone option?

“I don’t see why it’s anymore easier than pulling it (a paper registration) out of your console,” he said. “If I had it on my phone I might. But if anyone has worries about it, they have two other options.”

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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected].