In State v. David L. Smith (A-4-21/085635) (Decided June 28, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that a purported violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-74 based on tinted windows did not justify the Trenton Police Department’s investigatory stop of a motor vehicle. The court further held that, going forward, a reasonable and articulable suspicion of a tinted windows violation arises only when a vehicle’s front windshield or front side windows are so darkly tinted that police cannot clearly see people or articles within the car.
Facts of State v. Smith
The case centered on N.J.S.A. 39:3-74, which prohibits operation of a vehicle with any “non-transparent material” on the front windshield or front side windows. Although the statute predates automotive window tinting, it commonly serves as the statutory basis for tinted window citations.
In November 2018, at approximately 10:20 p.m., Trenton detectives stopped defendant David Smith’s motor vehicle for a purported tinted windows violation after the detectives observed dark tinting on defendant’s rear windshield. Despite the rear windshield’s tint, detectives were able to see that defendant was alone in the car and was making a furtive “shoving” motion, raising suspicions that he was trying to conceal a weapon. When the detectives searched the vehicle, they found a firearm. The detectives cited defendant for a tinted windows violation and charged him with various weapons offenses.
The trial court denied defendant’s motion to suppress the firearm, concluding that the car stop was supported by a reasonable suspicion of a tinted windows violation pursuant to an adjacent statute, N.J.S.A. 39:3-75, which prohibits the use of “safety glazing material which causes undue or unsafe distortion of visibility or . . . unduly fractured, discolored or deteriorated safety glazing material” on any of a vehicle’s windows. Smith subsequently pled guilty to second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun. The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of defendant’s motion to suppress. While Smith’s conviction was ultimately vacated and the charges dismissed, the New Jersey Supreme Court still considered the issues presented by the appeal because they “are of sufficient public importance and likely to surface again.”
NJ Supreme Court Decision in State v. Smith
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. “We hold that the stop was not supported by a reasonable and articulable suspicion of a motor vehicle violation,” Justice Solomon wrote on behalf of the court. Under the court’s ruling, a reasonable and articulable suspicion of a tinted windows violation arises only when a vehicle’s front windshield or front side windows are so darkly tinted that police cannot clearly see people or articles within the car.
In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court noted that N.J.S.A. 39:3-74, which was enacted in 1921 and last amended in 1937, pre-dates automotive window tinting. Nonetheless, the provision has been consistently cited as the statutory basis for tinted window stops. The court went on to find that the tint on defendant’s rear windshield could not constitute a violation under N.J.S.A. 39:3-74, which provides in pertinent part that “[n]o person shall drive any motor vehicle with any . . . non-transparent material upon the front windshield, . . . or front side windows of such vehicle.”
“Under the statute’s plain language, the tint on defendant’s rear windshield could not constitute a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-74,” Justice Solomon wrote. “It did not give rise to the reasonable and articulable suspicion necessary to justify this motor vehicle stop.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court further found that N.J.S.A. 39:3-75 does not apply to window tint violations. “The plain language of section 75 indicates that it is concerned solely with the quality and maintenance of such safety glazing material, not aftermarket tinted window film,” Justice Solomon wrote. “As the State now concedes, that provision has no bearing here.”
Additionally, the New Jersey Supreme Court determined that the facts of the case failed to support application of the community caretaking function, which may be implicated where police observe “something abnormal . . . concerning the operation of a motor vehicle.” As Justice Solomon explained, “defendant’s tinted rear windshield could not be considered a ‘significant obstruction’ of the driver’s vision or ‘a hazardous vehicular condition that deviates from the norm because, whether or not defendant’s car was equipped with exterior side mirrors, New Jersey law allows for rear window tinting on passenger vehicles.” He added that Detective Doggett testified that he was able to see through the rear windshield that there was “just the driver” making furtive motions inside the car.
Because no statutory or regulatory provision formed the basis for a reasonable and articulable suspicion that Smith committed a tinted windows violation, the New Jersey Supreme held that the initial stop of defendant’s vehicle was unconstitutional. With regard to whether N.J.S.A. 39:3-74 is unconstitutionally vague, the court answered in the negative.
“We hold that the term ‘non-transparent’ used in N.J.S.A. 39:3-74 is not impermissibly vague and means that reasonable suspicion of a tinted windows violation arises when a vehicle’s front windshield or front side windows are so darkly tinted that police cannot clearly see people or articles within the car,” Justice Solomon wrote. According to the court, that this construction “can be easily grasped by the public.”