Partially Obstructed License Plate Does Not Justify Motor Vehicle Stop
The New Jersey Appellate Division just ruled that police do not have the right under N.J.S.A 39:3-33 to stop a car just because the license plate frame partially obscured or covered the words “Garden State” at the bottom of the license plate. State v. Miguel Roman-Rosado.
In this matter, the license plate frame only covered 10 to 15% of the words Garden State on the license plate.
While it is true that a police officer has the right to conduct an investigatory stop of a motor vehicle where there is a reasonable and articulable suspicion that violations of the motor vehicle code of other laws have been or are being committed. State v. Carty, 170 N.J. 632, 639-40 (2002).
However, a traffic stop based on an objectively erroneous understanding of the law is a violation of a person’s personal liberty. State v. Puzio, 379 N.J. Super. 378, 384 (App. Div. 2005).
N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 provides in pertinent part: No person shall drive a motor vehicle which has a license plate frame or identification marker holder that conceals or otherwise obscures any part of any marking imprinted upon the vehicle’s registration plate or any part of any insert which the director, as hereinafter provided, issues to be inserted in and attached to that registration plate or marker.
In so ruling, the Appellate Court ruled that based on our common understanding of the verbs “conceal” and “obscure,” coupled with our prior interpretation of the N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 in D.K., a license plate only violated N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 if any part of the license plate’s marking is concealed or obscured so as to make it less legible. By “less legible,” we mean an inability to discern critical identifying information imprinted on the license plate. Otherwise, this would cause an absurd result where a law enforcement officer, as was the situation here, has the unfetterd right to stop a motorist where there is the slightest, and candidly insignificant, covering of “Garden State” on a driver’s rear license plate.
Call James Wronko if you have had this happen to you.