Motor Vehicle Stops and License Plate Frames (Part 4)

by | Nov 3, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

Chief Justice Rabner continued in relevant part: The Court reviews the text of section 33 and notes that violations of that section carry a fine and imprisonment for failure to pay the fine. A related provision in Title 39 requires that the words “Garden State” “be imprinted” on license plates for passenger cars. N.J.S.A. 39:3-33.2. Yet other statutes authorize specialty plates, which do not contain the phrase “Garden State.”

A companion statute to section 33 addresses groups that supply license plate frames or holders and prohibits the distribution of merchandise “knowing that such merchandise is designed or intended to be used to conceal or degrade the legibility of any part of any marking imprinted upon a vehicle’s license plate for the purpose of evading law enforcement.” N.J.S.A. 39:3-33c (section 33c). The police issue more than 100,000 violation notices for section 33 in a year. Not a single violation notice was issued for section 33c from 2012 to 2019.

The Court reviews principles of statutory construction and the parties’ arguments about the meaning of section 33. The State contends that the statute’s words are clear: a license plate frame cannot cover any part of any marking on a license plate. Defendants stress that section 33 bars the use of license plate frames only insofar as they conceal or otherwise obscure certain markings. The Court notes first that the term “marking” in section 33 extends to any impressions on a license plate, not just the registration numbers and letters. But, after reviewing the ordinary definitions of the key terms of section 33 — “conceal” and “obscure” — the Court understands those terms to focus on legibility, not on every minor covering of otherwise recognizable markings. Reading the statute in that way avoids absurd results and comports with the view that the Legislature “writes motor vehicle laws in language that can be easily grasped by the public so that every motorist can obey the rules of the road.” State v. Scriven, 226 N.J. 20, 34 (2016). The defense did an excellent job using statistics to demonstrate the absurdity of how this statute was enforced. The statistics clearly demonstrated selective enforcement by the police so that they could use the license plate statute as a pretext to stop almost anyone that they wanted on a whim.