Motor Vehicle Stops and License Plate Frames (Part 1)

by | Oct 31, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On August 2, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the consolidated Burlington and Gloucester County cases of State v. Darius J. Carter and State v. Miguel A. Roman-Rosado. The principal issue concerned the constitutionality of the motor vehicle statute that prohibits the covering of any license plate marking.

Chief Justice Rabner wrote for a unanimous Court in relevant part: In recent years, more than 100,000 drivers annually have been ticketed for violating N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 (section 33), which includes a prohibition against “driving a motor vehicle which has a license plate frame . . . that conceals or otherwise obscures any part of any marking imprinted upon the vehicle’s registration plate.” The defendants in these consolidated appeals were stopped while driving. The stops were pretextual: officers stopped each defendant because part of their license plates were covered, but the purpose was to try to develop a criminal investigation. The police found contraband in both cases, which formed the grounds for defendants’ convictions.

Defendants argue that if section 33 is read expansively, the statute is unconstitutionally vague and overly broad, and also invites discriminatory enforcement. The State opposes those arguments and relies in the alternative on Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54 (2014), for the proposition that a stop and conviction based on an officer’s reasonable but mistaken interpretation of the law should be upheld.

Defendant Darius Carter was stopped in September 2014. The words “Garden State” were covered on his car’s license plate, and the basis for the stop was a suspected violation of section 33. Carter was driving without a license, and the police learned that he had two outstanding arrest warrants. The police arrested Carter and later found heroin and a small amount of cocaine on him.

Appellate prosecutors have been advocating for the New Jersey Supreme Court to adopt the Heien case as a matter of state constitutional law since shortly after the United State Supreme Court issued the opinion in 2014. Their advocacy coincided with Governor Christie’s packing the Court with pro-prosecution Justices.