To be lawful, an automobile stop must be based on reasonable and articulable suspicion that an offense, including a minor traffic offense, has been or is being committed. S.R. failed to wear his seatbelt and therefore violated the traffic code. *The stop followed the detectives’ observation of the traffic code violation and was therefore valid. The detectives’ subjective intent is irrelevant in light of the objective grounds for the stop. Because the stop was justified by the detectives’ reasonable and articulable suspicion as to the traffic offense, the Court does not reach the issue of reasonable and articulable suspicion of drug activity.
The recent emphasis on ignoring an officer’s subjective intent is disturbing as it all but encourages police to lie in their reports and testimony. The alleged rationale is that it is too difficult to determine an officer’s subjective intent. The reality is that our justice system requires jurors to determine a defendant’s intent in all but the very rare strict liability offenses like what is commonly referred to as “statutory rape.” Jurors determine a defendant’s intent with the use of detailed instructions from the court that could just as easily be used when determining an officer’s intent.
The New Jersey and Federal Constitutions protect against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” N.J. Const. art. I, 7; see U.S. Const. amend. IV. In 1977, the United States Supreme Court held it objectively reasonable for officers to order a driver out of a lawfully stopped vehicle in Pennsylvania v. Mimms. In 1994, the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to extend the Mimms rule to passengers, instead determining that officers may order passengers out of a vehicle only if they can assert “specific and articulable facts that would warrant heightened caution.”
Three years after Smith, the United States Supreme Court declared, “an officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop” per Maryland v. Wilson. After Wilson, New Jersey law was more protective than federal law on the issue of passenger removal. In State v. Sloane (2008), the Court concluded that, “when a police officer conducts a traffic stop of a private vehicle, the passenger as well as the driver is seized under both the federal and state constitutions.” Most recently, the Court reaffirmed the Smith standard in State v. Mai (2010).