NJ Supreme Court Clarifies When License Plates Can Justify Traffic Stop

In State v. Carter (A-66-19/083221) and State v. Roman-Rosado (A-67-19/084074) (Decided August 2, 2021), the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed when police officers can stop motorists with covered license plates. Under the court’s unanimous decision, if a frame conceals or obscures a marking in a way that it can’t reasonably be identified or discerned, the driver would be in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-33, which requires that all markings on a license plate be legible or identifiable. “In practice, if a registration letter or number is not legible, the statute would apply; but if a phrase like ‘Garden State’ is partly covered but still recognizable, there would be no violation,” the court held.

Facts of the Cases

The relevant statute, N.J.S.A. 39:3-33, reads in part as follows: “No person shall drive a motor vehicle which has a license plate frame or identification marker holder that conceals or otherwise obscures any part of any marking imprinted upon the vehicle’s registration plate…” According to the New Jersey Supreme Court, more than 100,000 drivers annually have been ticketed for violating the statute in recent years. It is unclear how many more drivers are stopped by the police pursuant to the statute, and charged with other offenses or let go without a ticket.

The defendants, Darius Carter and Miguel A. Roman-Rosado, were both stopped while driving. The stops were pretextual: officers stopped each defendant because part of their license plates were covered, but the purpose was to try to develop a criminal investigation. The police found contraband in both cases, which formed the grounds for defendants’ convictions.

Defendants argue that if section 33 is read expansively, the statute is unconstitutionally vague and overly broad, and also invites discriminatory enforcement. The State opposes those arguments and relies in the alternative on Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54 (2014), for the proposition that a stop and conviction based on an officer’s reasonable but mistaken interpretation of the law should be upheld.

Defendant Darius Carter was stopped in September 2014. The words “Garden State” were covered on his car’s license plate, and the basis for the stop was a suspected violation of section 33. Carter was driving without a license, and the police learned that he had two outstanding arrest warrants. The police arrested Carter and later found heroin and a small amount of cocaine on him. Carter moved to suppress the drugs seized. The parties did not dispute that a license plate frame covered the words “Garden State” on the plate, and neither party argued that any other part of the plate was covered.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress, concluding the stop was pretextual but that the law unambiguously barred concealing any markings on a license plate, not just the plate’s registration numbers. The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the statute’s

plain language “expressly prohibits even the partial concealment of any marking on the license plate,” including the words “Garden State.”

In April 2016, a police officer stopped the car Miguel Roman-Rosado was driving. The officer testified he “was on a proactive detail” — “stop[ping] a lot of cars for motor vehicle infractions and . . . then try[ing to] develop criminal investigations from that.” While driving right behind Roman-Rosado, the officer noticed a bracket around the rear license plate that covered about ten or fifteen percent of the words “Garden State.” The officer stopped the car based on a suspected violation of section 33 and learned that Roman-Rosado had two outstanding arrest warrants. After spotting a garment wrapped around something bulky, the officer found an unloaded handgun. Roman-Rosado moved to suppress the gun as the fruit of an unlawful stop.

The trial court denied the motion. The court acknowledged there were minimal obstructions on the plate — a portion of the bottom of “Garden State” as well as the top of the “N” and the “J” in New Jersey — but found that the statute barred the “obstruction of any marking on the” plate. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the plate’s markings were not concealed or obscured within the meaning of the statute. The court found that there was no reasonable basis for the police to stop Roman-Rosado’s car, that the subsequent search of the car was unconstitutional, and that the handgun should have been suppressed.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed that section 33, if read broadly, raises serious constitutional concerns. “If the proposed broad reading of (the law) section 33 were the standard, tens if not hundreds of thousands of New Jersey drivers would be in violation of the law,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote on behalf of the unanimous court.

“Drive on any highway in the state to see that a large number of license plate frames cover the very top of the letters ‘N’ and ‘J’ in ‘New Jersey’ or the bottom of the letters in ‘Garden State,’” the Chief Justice added. “Under the State’s interpretation… countless drivers could all be stopped by the police and be exposed to a fine or possible jail sentence. That reading of the law is at odds with the view that the Legislature ‘writes motor-vehicle laws in language that can be easily grasped by the public so that every motorist can obey the rules of the road.’”

The New Jersey Supreme Court also found that limitless discretion could invite pretextual stops, like the stops in both cases here. It further emphasized that a broad interpretation of the statute could also lead to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.

Accordingly, the court held that section 33 requires that all markings on a license plate be legible or identifiable. “That interpretation is consistent with the plain meaning of the statute’s wording,” Rabner wrote. “If a license plate frame or holder conceals or obscures a marking such that a person cannot reasonably identify or discern the imprinted information, the driver would be in violation of the law.” He further explained:

In other words, a frame cannot cover any of the plate’s features to the point that a person cannot reasonably identify a marking. So, for example, if even a part of a single registration letter or number on a license plate is covered and not legible, the statute would apply because each of those characters is a separate marking. If “Garden State,” “New Jersey,” or some other phrase is covered to the point that the phrase cannot be identified, the law would likewise apply. But if those phrases were partly covered yet still recognizable, there would be no violation.

Applying the above test, the New Jersey Supreme Court went on to find that Roman-Rosado did not violate the statute. As Chief Justice Rabner noted, the officer who stopped Roman-Rosado testified that only ten or fifteen percent of the words “Garden State” were obstructed, and he conceded he could clearly identify the phrase on the license plate. In Carter’s case, however, it is undisputed that “Garden State” was entirely covered. Accordingly, the court found that the plate violated the statute, and law enforcement officers had the right to stop Carter.

Because Roman-Rosado did not violate the statute, the New Jersey Supreme Court evaluated the reasonable mistake of law doctrine. In conducting its analysis, the court declined to adopt the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Heien, in which the Supreme Court held that a police officer’s mistake of law can give rise to the reasonable suspicion needed to justify a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment.

According to the New Jersey Supreme Court, the State Constitution is designed to protect individual rights, and it provides greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than the Fourth Amendment. Under Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State Constitution, it is simply not reasonable to restrict someone’s liberty for behavior that no actual law condemns, even when an officer mistakenly, although reasonably, misinterprets the meaning of a statute. Because there was no lawful basis to stop Roman-Rosado, the court found that evidence seized as a direct result of the stop must be suppressed.

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