Police cannot always stop drivers for obscured license plates, N.J. Supreme Court rules

Decision is partial victory for civil liberties advocates who said such stops are unconstitutional

By: - August 2, 2021 2:04 pm

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Police in New Jersey can no longer stop motorists for driving cars with partially obscured license plates if the plate markings are still recognizable, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled in a unanimous decision issued Monday.

The ruling was largely a victory for civil liberties advocates who claimed that such stops are unconstitutional, discriminatory against drivers of color, and merely a pretext that police use to search a car, question a driver or otherwise randomly look for criminal activity when they lack probable cause.

The decision stems from two cases where police stopped cars because their license plate frames either partially or fully obscured the words “Garden State.” In both cases, the plate numbers were fully legible.

State law prohibits any part of the plate to be obscured, though, and the state Attorney General’s Office had pressed for courts to uphold the convictions (for gun and drug offenses) in the two cases at hand.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, who wrote Monday’s decision, said the law does not allow a motorist to have any marking on their license plate to be completely obscured, but if a phrase like “Garden State” is partially covered but still legible, there is no violation.

Under the New Jersey Constitution, Rabner’s ruling reads, “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.

The ruling will have wide impact: More than 100,000 drivers get ticketed each year under the law.

Attorney C.J. Griffin, who filed an amicus brief and argued before the Supreme Court in the case, applauded the ruling.

“This is a good decision for New Jerseyans, because hundreds of thousands of us are driving around with these frames on our cars and have no idea we’re violating the statute,” Griffin said. “This ruling will largely put an end to that. You can now only be stopped if entire words are obscured.”

Karen Thompson, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, also argued before the Court. Of Monday’s ruling, she said: “I think it’s a very strong opinion that says that broad and ambiguous laws can’t be used to justify police actions.”

“New Jersey is more interested in protecting the constitutional rights of New Jerseyans than a law enforcement officer that might be wrong,” Thompson added. “These pretextual stops are for small, in-the-weeds, tiny little offenses, like an air freshener hanging from your mirror. We hope that with this ruling, whenever there is a pretextual stop, the officer is going to think twice, and say: ‘is it worth violating this person’s rights?’”

Peter Aseltine, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the office is reviewing the opinion and is committed to ensuring all law enforcement quickly implements the court’s holding.

“More generally, the acting Attorney General is committed to improving best practices in policing, and plans to work with stakeholders and law enforcement leaders going forward to achieve that goal,” Aseltine said.

Griffin and Thompson both noted that the ruling fell short in addressing the racial disparities in such “pretextual stops,” which they said disproportionately target Black and Latino drivers.

“That’s the problem with pretextual stops — people of color are disproportionately subjected to them, whether because of overt discrimination or implicit bias on the part of the officer,” Griffin said.

The cases that prompted the ruling both involved drivers of color. In 2014, police in Pemberton, Burlington County, stopped Darius Carter because the “Garden State” on the bottom of his plate was completely covered. In 2016, police in Deptford, Gloucester County, pulled over Miguel A. Roman-Rosado because a license plate frame obscured the bottom 10-15% of “Garden State.”

In both cases, officers found contraband that resulted in criminal convictions: in Carter’s case, a small amount of cocaine, and in Roman-Rosado’s case, an unloaded gun. Trial judges in both cases sided with police, but Roman-Rosado’s conviction was vacated on appeal. In today’s ruling, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner agreed the appellate court rightfully reversed Roman-Rosado’s conviction for gun offenses, saying the stop was unlawful because “Garden State” was barely covered and still recognizable, so evidence seized during the stop must be suppressed.

Monday’s decision upholds Carter’s conviction on drug offenses because “Garden State” on his car was totally covered, and therefore the stop was lawful under the statute as written.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.