Motor Vehicle Stops and License Plate Frames (Part 5)

by | Nov 4, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The New Jersey Supreme Court continued with the following in relevant part: Noting that section 33 — unlike section 33c — does not expressly include language about legibility, the Court considers the statute’s legislative history. That history sheds little light on the scope of the provision at issue here or the meaning of its key terms, but amendments to other portions of N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 reflect the Legislature’s concern about the legibility of license plates.

Defendants argue that a broad reading of section 33 does not pass constitutional muster. They argue that a law that criminalizes de minimis obstructions of phrases like “Garden State” fails under the permissive rational basis test. They contend as well that the statute, as interpreted by the State, is both unconstitutionally vague and overly broad. Vague laws are constitutionally deficient under principles of procedural due process because they leave people guessing about their meaning and do not provide fair notice of conduct that is forbidden. Overly broad statutes suffer from a different flaw, one that rests on principles of substantive due process: they invite excessive governmental intrusion into protected areas by extending too far. Rather than strike down a law as unconstitutional, however, if the “statute is ‘reasonably susceptible’ to an interpretation that will render it constitutional,” courts construe the law narrowly to remove any doubts about its constitutional validity. State v. Burkert, 231 N.J. 257, 277 (2017).

The Court agrees that section 33, if read broadly, raises serious constitutional concerns. Roman-Rosado was stopped for a license plate frame that covered ten to fifteen percent of the bottom of the phrase “Garden State.” But the words, like the rest of the markings on the plate, were fully recognizable. Most people would have no idea that section 33 might apply in such a situation. If the proposed broad reading of section 33 were the standard, tens if not hundreds of thousands of New Jersey drivers would be in violation of the law. Further, limitless discretion can invite pretextual stops, like the stops in both cases here. It can also lead to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.

The Court’s reasoning demonstrates how there is conflicting caselaw on many issues of criminal law and procedure. It reasons that most people have no idea that they are in violation of the license plate law. This is in conflict with case law holding that people are presumptively aware of all motor vehicle and criminal statutes. The latter is based on a legal fiction since no one person can keep track of the growing number of laws that are frequently enacted.