New Jersey attorney general on wrong side of license plate case

August 3, 2021 7:00 am

An image of a partially obscured license plate that was central to the New Jersey Supreme Court case State v. Miguel A. Roman-Rosado.

In March, then-New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal spoke with the Washington Post about his vision for police reform.

Grewal said his office was focused on improving law enforcement “well before the events of this past summer,” meaning the nationwide unrest that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“We want to improve policing because we understand that there has been an erosion of trust between law enforcement and the communities that we serve,” he said.

A fine sentiment, but one that does not align with Grewal’s push to allow police officers to use a state law about license plate frames as a pretext to pull over motorists and search their cars illegally. Grewal – who was succeeded by Andrew Bruck on an acting basis in mid-July – was on the wrong side here, especially if he was sincere about wanting to rebuild the trust between police and New Jersey residents.

Thankfully the New Jersey Supreme Court on Monday handed the Attorney General’s Office a partial loss when it ruled police cannot stop motorists just because a portion of their license plate is obscured but still recognizable. In one of the two cases that were part of the justices’ ruling, a Deptford police officer pulled over a man because the very bottom of the words “Garden State” was covered by a frame.

Civil rights advocates are right to stress that pretextual traffic stops – for a minimally obscured license plate, or an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror – should not be allowed. These stops are especially troubling in light of recent traffic stop data, released by Grewal when he was A.G., showing state troopers pulled over white motorists three times more often than Black drivers … but arrested Black drivers, searched them and searched their cars more often, as detailed by NJ Spotlight.

To make matters worse, it’s not clear how many motorists actively obscure their license plates and how many drive off a dealership lot with improper plate frames.

When I started reading about this case, I took a look at the rear license plate on my own car. Here’s what I saw:

Are law enforcement officers actually interested in making sure motorists don’t obscure their license plates, or are they really using that infraction to stop motorists they think have behaved badly? A troubling moment during oral arguments in this case in front of the Supreme Court in April makes me think the latter is true.

Justice Barry Albin asked Regina Oberholzer, a deputy attorney general, if she knew about a New Jersey law that makes it illegal to sell or provide license plate frames that obscure the plate. Oberholzer said she did not. Rabner followed up by noting police issued more than 100,000 tickets to motorists with obscured license plates in 2018 and in 2019. How many tickets did police issue to car dealerships for giving out improper license plate frames? Zero.

So officers could halt much of this problem by targeting car dealerships directly. They don’t.

The decision by the Attorney General’s Office to pursue this case to the Supreme Court would not be quite so bad if it did not appear to be part of a pattern for New Jersey Democrats. Their base wants/demands police reform, so Garden State Democrats talk it up. But when it comes to implementing common-sense reforms, they either sit on their hands or actively block them.

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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”