State v. Carter; State v. Roman-Rosado, 247 N.J. 488 (2021)


“Driving while Black” isn’t a crime, so New Jersey law enforcement officers have long relied on an overly broad state law to justify traffic stops: It was illegal to cover any part of a vehicle’s license plate. It didn’t matter if the tag was still fully readable, or if the blockage was caused by a dealer-issued license plate frame the driver had never even noticed.

Data proved that police used this infraction to pull over a disproportionate number of people of color.

In 2016, Miguel A. Roman-Rosado was pulled over after a police officer noticed that a license plate bracket covered about 10 to 15 percent of the words “Garden State“ on the bottom of the plate. The officer stopped Roman-Rosado, then arrested him after finding he had two outstanding arrest warrants. Police allegedly found an unloaded handgun in the vehicle.

Roman-Rosado moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the stop was not lawful because there was no reasonable suspicion that he violated the license plate frame statute since his tag was not fully obstructed and all of the words could still be read. He further argued that even if the officer reasonably believed that the statute prohibited drivers from covering any portion of their license plate with a frame, a reasonable mistake of law does not justify a stop.

CJ Griffin represented amicus curiae Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, arguing that permitting police to ticket vehicles simply because some small portion of the words on a license plate frame were covered by a plate would give the police vast discretion to stop almost anyone, since most vehicles have violating plate frames (which were often installed by dealers, not the owners of the vehicle). Griffin cited data showing that people of color are disproportionally stopped for license plate frame violations.

In a decision released in August 2021, the N.J. Supreme Court held police did not have grounds to stop Roman-Rosado because although a tiny portion of the plate was covered, the words “Garden State” were still recognizable. The Court held that police could stop vehicles only if a license plate frame conceals or obscures any words or numbers on the plate such that a person cannot reasonably identify or discern the words or numbers. It also rejected the U.S. Supreme Court’s “reasonable mistake of law” doctrine, holding that even if the officers were reasonable in believing that the ambiguous statute justified stopping cars where any portion of the plate was obscured, that reasonable mistake of law cannot constitute reasonable suspicion to justify the stop under the New Jersey Constitution.

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