New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1986)

Author: Justice Powell

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New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1986)

JUSTICE POWELL, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE joins, concurring.

I join the Court’s opinion, but write to emphasize that, because of the unique and important governmental interests served by inspection of the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), an officer making a lawful stop of a vehicle has the right and duty to inspect the VIN. Where the VIN is not visible from outside the vehicle or voluntarily disclosed by the driver, the officer may enter the vehicle to the extent necessary to read the VIN.

As the Court explains, the VIN essentially is a serial number that, by identifying certain features of the vehicle to which it is affixed, provides an effective and reliable means for positive identification of the vehicle. The VIN occupies a central position in the elaborate federal and state regulation of automobiles, which frequently depends on such positive identification. Federal regulations now direct manufacturers to place the VIN in a location where it is in the plain view of an observer standing outside the vehicle. 49 CFR § 571.115 (S4.6) (1984).

The Court has answered correctly the question presented in this case by applying conventional Fourth Amendment analysis. I believe, however, that an officer’s efforts to observe the VIN need not be subjected to the same scrutiny that courts properly apply when police have intruded into a vehicle to arrest or to search for evidence of crime. When an officer lawfully has stopped a motor vehicle for a traffic infraction, the officer is entitled to inspect license and registration documents. See Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979); Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977) (per curiam). Unquestionably, the officer also may look through the windshield, observe the VIN, and record it without implicating any Fourth Amendment concerns. Respondent does not contend, nor could it reasonably be contended, that such action violates the Federal Constitution. The question raised on the facts of this case, therefore, is whether the Fourth Amendment was offended by the incremental intrusion resulting from the officer’s efforts to observe this VIN once respondent’s vehicle lawfully was stopped. Cf. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, supra, at 109.

The problem for the officer was that the VIN, located on the dashboard just behind the windshield, was obscured by papers. The sequence of events that transpired is well stated in the Court’s opinion. Suffice it to say here that, when respondent left his vehicle to talk to one of the officers, the other officer sought to determine the VIN of the automobile. This officer did what his duty required. Because he could not see the VIN from outside the car, and because the driver had exited the vehicle, the officer entered the car to the extent necessary to move the papers covering the VIN. It was only then that he observed a handgun protruding from beneath the front seat. The Court of Appeals of New York held that this intrusion was an unlawful search. While agreeing that a search occurred, this Court today sustains the officer’s action on reasoning familiar in cases applying Fourth Amendment principles to automobiles.

In my view, the Fourth Amendment question may be stated simply as whether the officer’s efforts to inspect the VIN were reasonable. There is no finding in this case that the officer’s entry into respondent’s vehicle -- opening the door and reaching his hand to the dashboard -- was not reasonably necessary to achieve his lawful purpose. If respondent had remained in his seat, as the Court observes, the officer properly should have requested him to remove the papers obstructing the VIN. In the absence of compliance with such a request, an arrest would have been lawful. Cf. People v. Ellis, 62 N.Y.2d 393, 465 N.E.2d 826 (1984) (on lawful traffic stop, officers properly arrested driver for failure to produce license or other identification).

In view of the important public purposes served by the VIN system and the minimal expectation of privacy in the VIN, I would hold that, where a police officer lawfully stops a motor vehicle, he may inspect the VIN, and remove any obstruction preventing such inspection, where the driver of the vehicle either is unwilling or unable to cooperate.*

* I do not suggest, of course, that the Fourth Amendment is inapplicable in this context. An officer may not use VIN inspection as a pretext for searching a vehicle for contraband or weapons. Nor may the officer undertake an entry more extensive than reasonably necessary to remove any obstruction and read the VIN.


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Chicago: Powell, "Powell, J., Concurring," New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1986) in 475 U.S. 106 475 U.S. 121–475 U.S. 122. Original Sources, accessed April 1, 2023,

MLA: Powell. "Powell, J., Concurring." New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1986), in 475 U.S. 106, pp. 475 U.S. 121–475 U.S. 122. Original Sources. 1 Apr. 2023.

Harvard: Powell, 'Powell, J., Concurring' in New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1986). cited in 1986, 475 U.S. 106, pp.475 U.S. 121–475 U.S. 122. Original Sources, retrieved 1 April 2023, from