Top court bans unjustified police stops

More than 100,000 drivers have been ticketed each year for violating a state law that is unconstitutionally vague, overly broad, and invites discriminatory enforcement, according to a new opinion from the New Jersey Supreme Court.

“Cops in NJ will no longer be able to stop drivers for plate frame violations like this, where only a small portion of ‘Garden State’ is covered, per today’s Supreme Court ruling,” said civil rights attorney C.J. Griffin,  director of the Justice Gary S. Stein Public Interest Center at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden.

At issue is whether police may stop a driver whose frame covers part of the tag although the identifying markings on a license plate remain visible. The motorists that have been stopped are disproportionately drivers people of color.

The decision establishes a tougher burden on police than the US Supreme Court’s ruling inHeien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54 (2014), which held that if a police officer’s understanding of the law is mistaken but reasonable, a resulting vehicle stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment because the officer had reasonable suspicion justifying the stop.

“We decline to adopt the standard set forth in Heien under the New Jersey Constitution,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote. “The State Constitution is designed to protect individual rights, and it provides greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than the Fourth Amendment. Under Article I, Paragraph 7 of the State Constitution, it is simply not reasonable to restrict someone’s liberty for behavior that no actual law condemns, even when an officer mistakenly, although reasonably, misinterprets the meaning of a statute.”

Rabner said law enforcement officers “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.”

Darius Carter

Consequently, two convicted criminals will be released because the police should not have been able to obtain evidence against them during illegal traffic stops.

Darius Carter was stopped in September 2014 because police said the words “Garden State” were covered on his car’s license plate, and the officers charged him for driving without a license, being the subject of two outstanding arrest warrants and possession of heroin and a small amount of cocaine found on him at the time of his arrest.

Miguel Roman-Rosado

A police officer found an unloaded handgun after he stopped the car Miguel Roman-Rosado was driving in April 2016, because he noticed a bracket around the rear license plate that covered about ten or fifteen percent of the words “Garden State.” He subsequently pled guilty to violating N.J.S.A. 2C:39-7(b)(1) (certain persons not to possess a weapon) after his effort to suppress the weapon as having been the product of an unlawful search and seizure.

The state’s top court ruling is the second recent opinion that makes changes to how the state court system views discrimination, this time setting new rules for when police may legally initiate a traffic stop.

The justices unanimously awarded a new trial in State v. Edwin Andujar on July 13, after reviewing Andujar’s conviction for murdering his roommate in 2014.

That case made vital changes to the way state courts views discrimination by addressing a little-known practice of conducting criminal history checks on prospective jurors and explicitly recognizing unconscious racial bias as a form of illegal discrimination.

Implicit bias “is no less real and no less problematic than intentional bias,” wrote Rabner in his Andujar opinion. “From the standpoint of the State Constitution, it makes little sense to condemn one form of racial discrimination yet permit another.”

That decision tossed out a 2017 first-degree murder conviction after finding that the state may have relied on “implicit or unconscious” bias when it sought to remove a prospective Black juror by running a background check on him and arranging to have him arrested over an open municipal court warrant.

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