The New Jersey Supreme Court continued in relevant part: Carter moved to suppress the drugs seized. The parties did not dispute that a license plate frame covered the words “Garden State” on the plate, and neither party argued that any other part of the plate was covered. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, concluding the stop was pretextual but that the law unambiguously barred concealing any markings on a license plate, not just the plate’s registration numbers. The Appellate Division affirmed, finding that the statute’s plain language “expressly prohibits even the partial concealment of any marking on the license plate,” including the words “Garden State.”
In April 2016, a police officer stopped the car Miguel Roman-Rosado was driving. The officer testified he “was on a proactive detail” — “stopping a lot of cars for motor vehicle infractions and . . . then trying to develop criminal investigations from that.” While driving right behind Roman-Rosado, the officer noticed a bracket around the rear license plate that covered about ten or fifteen percent of the words “Garden State.” The officer stopped the car based on a suspected violation of section 33 and learned that Roman-Rosado had two outstanding arrest warrants.
After spotting a garment wrapped around something bulky, the officer found an unloaded handgun. Roman-Rosado moved to suppress the gun as the fruit of an unlawful stop. The trial court denied the motion. The court acknowledged there were minimal obstructions on the plate — a portion of the bottom of “Garden State” as well as the top of the “N” and the “J” in New Jersey — but found that the statute barred the “obstruction of any marking on the” plate.
The Court had to balance conflicting law in deciding the case of Roman-Rosado. On the one hand, the plain language of the statute says obscuring “any part” of a license plate marking is a violation. It was not disputed that a small part was concealed. On the other hand, the Court had to look to the Legislature’s intent. That intent was to ensure that license plates are clearly legible as opposed to giving the police a basis to stop the majority of the cars on the road. Most cars come equipped with a partially-obscured plate right from the dealer.