Taillights and Motor Vehicle Stops: Part 5

by | Feb 24, 2018 | Blog, DUI, New Jersey

Suspended LicenseA number of states have subsequently adopted Heien‘s holding. Importantly, however, a number of states have either followed or acknowledged Justice Kagan’s narrow interpretation of an objectively reasonable mistake of law. In State v. Scriven, the New Jersey Supreme Court did not reach the question of whether to adopt Heien. The officer’s mistake of law in that case was not objectively reasonable and thus did not qualify as the type of “rare” case that involves an objectively reasonable mistake of law.

Defendant’s traffic stop was premised on perceived violations of two statutes. The statutes read together require that a motor vehicle only have two working rear lamps, with at least one working lamp on each side. See N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a); N.J.S.A. 39:3-66. N.J.S.A. 39:3-66 mandates that the lamps “required by this article” must be kept in good working order. The statutes require one working taillight on each side of a vehicle. Thus, if a vehicle has two taillights on each side of the vehicle—more than the law requires—and one of those multiple taillights on one side is not working, a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66, as was assumed and charged here, has not occurred. The officer’s erroneous application of the functioning taillight requirement was not an objectively reasonable mistake of law. This case does not present a basis for considering the application of Heien. Simply put, this was not a good stop. The judgment of the Appellate Division, premised on an application of Heien to the stop in this matter, is reversed.

The State also asserted community caretaking as an alternative basis to support the stop. The Appellate Division did not reach the argument in light of the manner in which it resolved the case. Accordingly, a remand is appropriate to allow the Appellate Division to address the unresolved argument advanced by the State.

Thus, the decision to purchase a vehicle with two taillights on each side is an important one. It can be the difference between demonstrating an unlawful stop wherein the case is dismissed, and a stop that produces evidence that can lead to a lengthy prison term for the driver and/or the vehicle’s other occupants.