Taillights and Motor Vehicle Stops: Part 1

by | Feb 16, 2018 | Blog, DUI, New Jersey

Suspended LicenseOn January 11, 2018, Justice LaVecchia wrote for a unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court in the Morris County case of State v. Ryan Sutherland. The principle issue was the constitutionality of a motor vehicle stop based on the belief that the vehicle was in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66 because one of the vehicle’s taillights was not operational.

A Toyota Camry that appeared to have a malfunctioning taillight passed Officer Carletta. Although the vehicle had four taillights in total, two on each side, and although only one light on the rear passenger side was not illuminated, Officer Carletta believed that the vehicle was in violation of the motor vehicle code. He executed a motor vehicle stop. Officer Carletta asked the driver, defendant Ryan Sutherland, for his driver’s license, motor vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. Officer Carletta returned to his vehicle to check defendant’s information. Upon confirming that defendant’s license was suspended, Officer Carletta issued two summonses: driving with a suspended license, and failure to maintain the vehicle’s “lamps” in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-66. A Morris County Grand Jury later indicted defendant and charged him with fourth-degree operating a motor vehicle during a period of license suspension for a second or subsequent driving-while-intoxicated conviction.

This fourth-degree statute was enacted in response to the numerous cases in which defendants drive after their license is suspended for a DUI. It applies to people who drive just one time while having their license suspended for a non-first-offense DUI. It also applies to defendants who are suspended for their first DUI, but have previously been convicted for driving while suspended for that particular DUI.

Defendant filed a motion to suppress the traffic stop and to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the traffic stop constituted an unreasonable seizure because his vehicle had three operable taillights, in compliance with the requirements of N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66. The State countered that the stop was lawful because the malfunctioning taillight provided Officer Carletta with reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle and because the stop was lawful under the “community caretaking” function by which police officers engage in protecting public safety. Officer Carletta testified at the hearing that he had stopped the vehicle both because he believed that any malfunctioning taillight constituted a violation of the statute and because he was engaging in community caretaking by letting defendant know that his vehicle was not in proper working order.