As the officer approached the driver’s side of the vehicle, he did not give the driver a warning to turn off her high beams, but instead instructed her to produce her license, registration, and insurance cards. With the driver’s side window down, he could smell burnt marijuana. He then walked around the vehicle, asked defendant, the front passenger, to roll down the window, and detected a stronger odor of burnt marijuana. The officer asked defendant and the rear passenger whether they had any drugs on them, and both replied, “No.” While engaged in this exchange, the officer noticed inside the vehicle a hollowed-out cigar, which, from his experience and training, he knew was used as a receptacle for marijuana. Based on this observation, he told defendant to step out of the car. In response, defendant allegedly indicated that he had a gun under his jacket. The officer ordered defendant to keep his hands up while he retrieved the weapon. Defendant was placed under arrest, and the driver was later issued a ticket for a violation of the high-beam statute.
Defendant was charged with unlawful possession of a .40 caliber handgun, receiving stolen property (the handgun), possession of hollow-nose bullets, and possession of a large-capacity magazine. Defendant filed a motion to suppress the handgun, the bullets, and the magazine on the ground that the police did not have a constitutionally permissible basis for stopping the car in which he was a passenger. The court granted the motion because the automobile stop violated the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. The court observed that the high-beam statute presupposes that the offending driver’s high beams are on when his vehicle approaches an oncoming vehicle. Here, Officer the officer testified without equivocation that he did not observe any other vehicle traveling in the opposite direction toward defendant’s vehicle. Therefore, the court reasoned that, in the absence of a violation of the high-beam statute, the officer did not have a reasonable and articulable suspicion to justify a motor-vehicle stop. The court also concluded that the stop could not be justified based on the community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement because the operation of the vehicle did not suggest that the driver was impaired or in need of police assistance. “Community caretaking” is another favorite “catch-all” that the police almost always attempt to use to justify motor vehicle stops in the absence of reasonable suspicion.
The Appellate Division granted the State’s motion for leave to appeal and, in an unpublished opinion, affirmed the trial court’s suppression order. Like the trial court, the appellate panel found that the officer did not have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that the operator of the subject car violated the high-beam statute because there were no oncoming vehicles approaching it. In light of the unambiguous language of the statute, the panel rejected the argument that the officer made a good faith mistake of law that allowed for the denial of the suppression motion. This is once again a common argument that the state will almost always use in an effort to prevent the suppression of evidence due to their illegal conduct. The panel also asserted that the community-caretaking doctrine did not apply because the record contains no proof that operation of the vehicle otherwise presented a traffic safety hazard or endangered the safety and welfare of defendant, the officer, or others on the road at the time.