Reasonable Suspicion and Motor Vehicle Stops (Part 3)

by | Aug 20, 2016 | Blog, Criminal Law, Traffic Stops

Criminal LawyerThe Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution provide that the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. A motor-vehicle stop by the police constitutes a seizure of persons within the meaning of those provisions. Under both provisions, a police officer must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the driver of a vehicle, or its occupants, is committing a motor-vehicle violation or a criminal or disorderly persons offense to justify a stop. The heart of this constitutional analysis is whether the motor-vehicle stop was unreasonable, recognizing that raw, inchoate suspicion grounded in speculation cannot be the basis for a valid stop.

An “oncoming vehicle” and “oncoming driver” cannot mean an unoccupied vehicle, parked on a perpendicular roadway, whose driver and passenger are standing in the street, even if the unoccupied vehicle’s motor is running and its headlights are on. Accordingly, the driver of the subject car was not in violation of the high-beam statute. The statute is unambiguous in its language and meaning to both the public and the police. The officer, who was on foot waiting for a tow truck, was not an “oncoming vehicle” or “oncoming driver” to the car approaching him. Further, because the officer did not have a reasonable and articulable suspicion to believe that the subject car was operating in violation of the statute, the Court need not address the issue dealt with in Heien v. North Carolina. In Heien the United States Supreme Court held that, under the Fourth Amendment, the requisite suspicion necessary for the police to make a stop for a motor-vehicle violation may be based on an objectively reasonable mistake of law. Here, however, because the officer’s mistake of law was not objectively reasonable, Heien is inapplicable.

The State alternatively argues that the officer had a justifiable basis for stopping the subject car under the community-caretaking exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, Paragraph 7 of our State Constitution. The community-caretaking doctrine recognizes that police officers provide a wide range of social services outside of their traditional law enforcement and criminal investigatory roles. Police officers who have an objectively reasonable basis to believe that a driver may be impaired or suffering a medical emergency may stop the vehicle for the purpose of making a welfare check and rendering aid, if necessary. The police do not have to wait until harm is caused to the driver or a pedestrian or other motorist before acting. The evidence here – according to the trial court – did not suggest that the driver of the car was impaired or that the vehicle had a problem. A police officer conducting an investigation on the street can ask and even instruct a driver to dim high beams if the brightness of the lights is obstructing or impairing the officer’s ability to perform certain tasks. Here, however, the officer did not signal to the driver to dim her high beams because they were interfering with his mission, which was waiting for a tow truck to take away an unregistered vehicle. Rather, he effectuated a motor-vehicle stop under the objectively unreasonable belief that the driver was in violation of the high-beam statute. The motor-vehicle stop was not justified. The subsequent seizure of the handgun, hollow-nose bullets, and large-capacity magazine were the fruits of a violation of the Fourth Amendment and its state constitutional counterpart. The court properly suppressed the evidence