The New Jersey Supreme Court held that the Appellate Division erred in concluding that the holding in Heien is applicable here. The motor vehicle statutes pertinent here are not ambiguous. The officer’s stop of defendant’s motor vehicle was not an objectively reasonable mistake of law that gave rise to constitutional reasonable suspicion; the stop was therefore unconstitutional.
Under previous case law in this state, a police officer’s objectively reasonable mistake of fact does not render a search or arrest unconstitutional. Consistent with federal jurisprudence, the Court has held that Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution provides room for some mistakes by police. However, that principle applies only when the police behave reasonably.
Until the Appellate Division decision in this case, the jurisprudence of New Jersey appellate courts had not held that reasonable mistakes of law would pass constitutional muster. In fact, courts had reached the opposite conclusion. The Puzio decision noted “a clear distinction between the present situation and those presented in cases where the officer correctly understands the statute but arguably misinterprets the facts concerning whether a vehicle, or operator, has violated the statute.” In explaining its reasoning, the panel stated that “[i]f officers were permitted to stop vehicles where it is objectively determined that there is no legal basis for their action, ‘the potential for abuse of traffic infractions as pretext for effecting stops seems boundless and the costs to privacy rights excessive.'” The panel also viewed the creation of an exception for a mistake of law as inconsistent with the exclusionary rule because “it would remove the incentive for police to make certain that they properly understand the law that they are entrusted to enforce and obey.”
In almost all cases like this, the police could have justified a motor vehicle stop by taking a few extra minutes to follow the vehicle at issue. With enough time on the road, everyone will drive over the speed limit by one mile per hour or have one of their tires touch a fog line. Those would be objectively reasonable bases to conduct a motor vehicle stop.