Chief Justice Rabner continued in relevant part: It is cause for concern, as well, that despite the State’s frequent use of section 33 to stop drivers, no summonses were issued under section 33c from 2012 through 2019. Law enforcement commonly attacks problems at their source, yet here, rather than take any action against the source of the offending frames, motorists by the thousands are pulled over each year. To the extent section 33 has two meanings — a narrow one that focuses on whether a license plate is legible, and a broader one that raises serious constitutional issues — the doctrine of constitutional avoidance calls for a narrow interpretation. State v. Pomianek, 221 N.J. 66, 90-91 (2015).
The Court holds that section 33 requires that all markings on a license plate be legible or identifiable. That interpretation is consistent with the plain meaning of the statute’s wording. If a license plate frame or holder conceals or obscures a marking such that a person cannot reasonably identify or discern the imprinted information, the driver would be in violation of the law. In other words, a frame cannot cover any of the plate’s features to the point that a person cannot reasonably identify a marking.
So, for example, if even a part of a single registration letter or number on a license plate is covered and not legible, the statute would apply because each of those characters is a separate marking. If “Garden State,” “New Jersey,” or some other phrase is covered to the point that the phrase cannot be identified, the law would likewise apply. But if those phrases were partly covered yet still recognizable, there would be no violation. When applying the above test, trial courts will be asked to evaluate whether license plate markings are legible or identifiable from the perspective of an objectively reasonable person. That judgment can be based on still photos or videos.
The lesson that a pro-prosecution policy maker will take from this opinion is to be aware of the compilation of damning statistics like the ones cited by the defense. Their response might be to encourage the police to use vague and overly broad statutes as bases for stops, but to not write citations for the underlying offense. That way, the stop is justified in the event that evidence is seized. But there will no be firm record of the offending statute being used as a basis for the stop.