NJ Supreme Court puts limits on stops for obscured license plates
TRENTON – Traffic stops for obstructed license plates are legitimate only if entire phrases, such as Garden State, are rendered illegible, the state Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision issued Monday.
In recent years, well over 100,000 drivers a year have been ticketed for having a license plate frame that conceals or obscures at least part of the print on the plate. But the court said it would be absurd to allow tickets any time a marking on a license plate is slightly covered.
“Under the state’s interpretation of section 33, countless drivers could all be stopped by the police and be exposed to a fine or possible jail sentence,” the ruling said. “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.’”
In the cases before the court, two defendants were stopped while driving – officially because parts of their license plates were covered, though the real purpose was to try to develop a criminal investigation. In one case drugs were found and in the other an unloaded handgun. The defendants argued the stops were unlawful because the registration numbers themselves on the plates remained visible.
Pemberton Township police stopped Darius Carter in 2014 because the Garden State nickname was entirely covered on his car’s license plate. He was driving without a license, had two outstanding arrest warrants and was found to possess heroin and cocaine.
That conviction was upheld. The court rejected his First Amendment claim that the government can’t compel speech such as displaying the nickname – saying there’s no evidence he actually opposes the expression.
Deptford Township police stopped Miguel Roman-Rosado in 2016 because about 10% to 15% of the words Garden State were covered on his license plate. He had two outstanding warrants and a garment wrapped around an unloaded handgun. Though the bottom of the nickname and top of the N and J in New Jersey had been obstructed, an appeals court and the Supreme Court said there was no reasonable basis to stop his car and therefore barred seizure of the gun.
The court, in the opinion written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, said the words on Roman-Rosado’s license plate were fully recognizable and that “most people would have no idea” the law might apply.
“License plate frames abound, and they invariably cover some part of the markings on the plates they surround. Frames supplied by dealerships, booster organizations, non-profit groups, and others often cover the bottom of ‘Garden State’ or the very top of ‘New Jersey,’” the court said. “Simply driving a car off the dealer’s lot with that type of license plate frame would amount to a violation and give officers a basis to stop the car. And if the proposed broad reading of section 33 were the standard, tens if not hundreds of thousands of New Jersey drivers would be in violation of the law.”
In the Roman-Rosado case, the state’s lawyers contended the officer may have made a reasonable mistake and that the stop and conviction should be upheld, but the Supreme Court disagreed.
“The State Constitution is designed to protect individual rights, and it provides greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than the Fourth Amendment,” the court said. “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.”
“Such an approach does not penalize law enforcement officers. Although they may need to make difficult judgment calls when enforcing laws that are not entirely clear, they suffer no penalty if they make a reasonable mistake,” the court said. “That cannot be said of individuals who are stopped or searched based on a mistaken interpretation of the law. They cannot tailor their behavior in advance to abide by what an officer might reasonably, but mistakenly, believe the law says. And if they are then stopped -- without notice -- for conduct that no law proscribes, they suffer real harm.
The court noted that state law also prohibits the distribution of license plate frames or holders that partially or fully conceal the legibility of any parts of license plates – but that not a single violation for that was issued between 2012 and 2019.
The court also noted that the Motor Vehicle Commission issues specialty license plates that do not contain the phrase Garden State despite a state law that requires them on license plates for passenger cars.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey said traffic stops and their resulting consequences have an overwhelming and disproportionate impact on minority populations.
“Knowing that police officers will no longer be able to stop a vehicle for a license plate frame ‘violation’ as long as the plate is legible is an important moment for racial and civil rights in New Jersey and comes as a relief for the more than 100,000 New Jerseyans these stops impact each year,” said ACLU-NJ senior staff attorney Karen Thompson.
“By placing limits on this long-standing practice, New Jersey is beginning to remove the veil that has acted as a legal justification for pretextual policing and instead prioritize the rights of people,” she said. “Prioritizing rights over manufactured 'reasonableness' creates real opportunities to hold police accountable and to stop the use of ambiguously broad laws as a way to excuse racialized policing.”