Chief Justice Rabner continued in relevant part: The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the plate’s markings were not concealed or obscured within the meaning of the statute. 462 N.J. Super. 183, 190 (App. Div. 2020). The court found that there was no reasonable basis for the police to stop Roman-Rosado’s car, that the subsequent search of the car was unconstitutional, and that the handgun should have been suppressed. Id. at 199-200. The Court granted certification. 241 N.J. 498 (2020); 241 N.J. 501 (2020).
To avoid serious constitutional concerns, the Court interprets the statute narrowly and holds that N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 requires that all markings on a license plate be legible or identifiable. If a frame conceals or obscures a marking in a way that it cannot reasonably be identified or discerned, the driver would be in violation of the law. In practice, if a registration letter or number is not legible, the statute would apply; but if a phrase like “Garden State” is partly covered but still recognizable, there would be no violation.
Under that standard, defendant Darius Carter’s license plate frame, which covered the phrase “Garden State” entirely, violated the law, so the stop was lawful. In contrast, defendant Miguel Roman-Rosado’s plate frame did not cover “Garden State.” It partially covered only ten or fifteen percent of the slogan, which was still fully legible, so the stop was unlawful. The Court declines to adopt the standard set forth in Heien under the New Jersey Constitution. The State Constitution is designed to protect individual rights, and it provides greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than the Fourth Amendment. Under Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State Constitution, it is simply not reasonable to restrict someone’s liberty for behavior that no actual law condemns, even when an officer mistakenly, although reasonably, misinterprets the meaning of a statute. Because there was no lawful basis to stop Roman-Rosado, evidence seized as a direct result of the stop must be suppressed.
The unanimous Court’s explicit rejection of Heien is both surprising and far-reaching. Heien was an 8-1 US Supreme Court decision which permitted the police to make reasonable mistakes with regard to legal interpretations. Previously, only reasonable factual mistakes were allowed. Surprisingly, even the late Justice Ginsburg sided with the majority. Justice Sotomayor was the lone dissenter.