N.J. Supreme Court rules traffic stop that led to weapons convictions was unconstitutional

By: - May 30, 2023 6:55 pm

Tuesday's ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court reverses the weapons convictions of two men who were arrested after the justices say the car they were driving in was illegally searched. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

The state Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed the weapons possession convictions of two men after finding in a unanimous ruling that the traffic stop that led to their arrests was unconstitutional.

But the court stopped short of agreeing with the defendant’s attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey to adopt a rule requiring officers making traffic stops for suspended licenses to first confirm the driver of the car they are pulling over is the person with the suspended license. Instead, the court said it will leave that issue to lawmakers.

Tuesday’s ruling is the first time the justices have considered whether the analysis behind a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on traffic stops supports a comparable approach in New Jersey. In the 2020 case, the nation’s high court ruled it is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment for police to stop vehicles registered to people with revoked driver’s licenses.

The New Jersey decision stems from a 2016 traffic stop detailed by the ruling.

Deal cop Jeffrey Kless searched for information on a Nissan he spotted during a traffic patrol and found the owner was a woman with a suspended driver’s license. Kless pulled the car over and found two men in the car, Jamire Williams driving and Tyshon Kelly in the front passenger’s seat. The men explained they had borrowed the car from its owner, whom they phoned from the scene.

Kless called for backup, claiming he might have smelled marijuana while standing outside the car but he was too congested to be sure. Another officer arrived with a canine to sniff the car. Williams told the officer the vehicle’s owner would need to consent to a search, but the officer told him that wasn’t true.

The dog found “a little” marijuana under the car’s passenger seat, the officers arrested the two men, and a further search of the car revealed a gun with hollow-point bullets under the driver’s seat.

The justices unanimously agreed the initial officer should have let the two men proceed after finding the driver was not the owner with the suspended license, and that the cop’s uncertainty about the odor of marijuana wasn’t enough to justify a search of the car.

“Therefore, immediately upon observing the occupants of the vehicle, Kless should have done no more than explain the vehicle had been inadvertently stopped and told defendants they were free to leave,” Judge Jack Sabatino, a temporary judge on the high court, wrote in the ruling.

The ruling reverses the convictions of the two men since the evidence against them was seized during an unconstitutional search of the car and should have been suppressed at trial. They had each been sentenced to 15 years behind bars for weapons possession.

The state Attorney General’s Office presented “worrisome” data on traffic stops, Sabatino added in his ruling. Over a 10-year span, nearly 30% of drivers stopped for suspected license or registration violations were not ticketed, suggesting that in some cases, the drivers being stopped are not the owners of the vehicles, the ruling says. 

Cars can be owned by one person and driven by multiple family members, and those sharing arrangements are more common in households that can’t afford multiple cars, Sabatino noted.

A lawyer for the defendants did not respond to a request for comment.


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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.