Motor Vehicle Stops and License Plate Frames (Part 8)

by | Nov 7, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The Court concluded with the following in relevant part: The United States Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the Federal Constitution. Here, the Court considers whether the reasonable mistake of law doctrine comports with the State Constitution. In our federalist system, state constitutions can be a source of more expansive individual liberties than what the Federal Constitution confers. On a number of occasions, the Court has found that the New Jersey Constitution affords greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than the Fourth Amendment does. In State v. Novembrino, for example, the Court declined to adopt the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule established under federal law in United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897 (1984). See 105 N.J. 95, 157-58 (1987).

The State Constitution favors the protection of individual rights and is designed to vindicate them. The key issue under New Jersey’s Constitution is not whether an officer reasonably erred about the meaning of a law. It is whether a person’s rights have been violated. If a law does not establish an offense, the reasonable nature of an officer’s mistake cannot transform an officer’s error into reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. If officers could search and seize a person under those circumstances, reasonable, good faith errors would erode individual rights that the State Constitution guarantees.

 Although officers may need to make difficult judgment calls when enforcing laws that are not entirely clear, they suffer no penalty if they make a reasonable mistake. That cannot be said of individuals who are stopped or searched based on a mistaken interpretation of the law. They cannot tailor their behavior in advance to abide by what an officer might reasonably, but mistakenly, believe the law says. And if they are then stopped — without notice — for conduct that no law proscribes, they suffer real harm. The Court declines to adopt a reasonable mistake of law exception under the New Jersey Constitution. The seizure of the handgun in Roman-Rosado’s case — following an unjustified car stop — must be suppressed under the exclusionary rule. Affirmed as modified.

The “good faith” exception endorsed by the United States Supreme Court is very similar to the “reasonable mistake of law” exception. This similarity might explain why Justice Ginsburg, a champion of individual rights, sided with the majority in Heien. She was merely being consistent with federal precedent.