State v. Carter

Citation247 N.J. 488,255 A.3d 1139
Decision Date02 August 2021
Docket NumberA-66 September Term 2019,A-67 September Term 2019,083221,084074
Parties STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Darius J. CARTER, a/k/a Buddah Buddah, and Buddha J. Carter, Defendant-Appellant. State of New Jersey, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Miguel A. Roman-Rosado, a/k/a Miguel Roman, Damian Rosado, Miguel A. Roman, and Miguel A. Rosado, Defendant-Respondent.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)

Regina M. Oberholzer, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for appellant in State v. Miguel A. Roman-Rosado (A-67-19) and argued the cause for respondent in State v. Darius J. Carter (A-66-19) (Andrew J. Bruck, Acting Attorney General, attorney; Regina M. Oberholzer, of counsel and on the briefs, and Nicole Handy, Assistant Burlington County Prosecutor, on the briefs).

Alison Perrone, First Assistant Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for respondent in State v. Miguel A. Roman-Rosado (A-67-19) (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Emma R. Moore, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, of counsel and on the briefs).

Joseph J. Russo, Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant in State v. Darius J. Carter (A-66-19) (Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney; Joseph J. Russo and Emma R. Moore, Assistant Deputy Public Defender, of counsel and on the briefs, and Amira R. Scurato, Designated Counsel, on the briefs).

Karen Thompson, Newark, argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Foundation, attorneys; Karen Thompson, Alexander Shalom, Newark, and Jeanne LoCicero, on the briefs).

CJ Griffin argued the cause for amicus curiae Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey (Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, attorneys; CJ Griffin, of counsel and on the briefs).

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Walk through any crowded parking lot and look carefully at the license plates.

Many if not most of them have frames that cover up part of the markings on the plate. Car dealers throughout the State supply many of those frames to advertise their dealerships. A variety of other organizations do likewise.

In some instances, an entire phrase, like "Garden State," is covered by the frame. In other cases, only a very small part of "New Jersey" or "Garden State" is covered, and the words are entirely legible.

According to the State, those examples all have one thing in common: the cars’ drivers have violated the law, and the police have the right to stop motorists and ticket them because part of the markings on their license plates are covered. Defendants argue that interpreting the law in that way presents multiple constitutional issues.

The relevant statute, N.J.S.A. 39:3-33, reads in part as follows: "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 ...." In recent years, more than 100,000 drivers annually have been ticketed for violating the statute, which also has other provisions. It is unclear how many more drivers are stopped by the police pursuant to the statute, and charged with other offenses or let go without a ticket.

Police officers have unfettered discretion in deciding how to enforce the statute. The Attorney General was unaware of any guidance that directs an officer's exercise of discretion.

In the twin cases before the Court in these consolidated appeals, officers engaged in pretextual stops. They stopped each defendant because part of the license plate was covered; as the arresting officer in Roman-Rosado candidly conceded, though, the purpose of the stop was to try to develop a criminal investigation. The police found contraband in both cases -- drugs in one matter and a gun in the other -- which formed the grounds for defendants’ convictions.

Defendants argue that, if read expansively, the relevant statute is unconstitutionally vague and overly broad, and also invites discriminatory enforcement. To avoid those serious concerns, we interpret the law narrowly. See State v. Pomianek, 221 N.J. 66, 90-91, 110 A.3d 841 (2015) (discussing the doctrine of constitutional avoidance). We hold that N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 requires that all markings on a license plate be legible or identifiable. If a frame conceals or obscures a marking in a way that it cannot reasonably be identified or discerned, the driver would be in violation of the law. In practice, if a registration letter or number is not legible, the statute would apply; but if a phrase like "Garden State" is partly covered but still recognizable, there would be no violation.

Under that standard, defendant Darius Carter's license plate frame, which covered the phrase "Garden State" entirely, violated the law, so the stop was lawful. In contrast, defendant Miguel Roman-Rosado's plate frame did not cover "Garden State." It partially covered only ten or fifteen percent of the slogan, which was still fully legible, so the stop was unlawful.

In Roman-Rosado's case, the State argues in the alternative that the officer made a reasonable mistake of law in interpreting section 33. Relying on the Supreme Court's ruling in Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014), the State submits that the stop and resulting conviction, based on a reasonable but mistaken interpretation of the law, should be upheld.

We decline to adopt the standard set forth in Heien under the New Jersey Constitution. 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. Because there was no lawful basis to stop Roman-Rosado, evidence seized as a direct result of the stop must be suppressed.

For reasons set forth more fully below, we modify and affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division in both cases.

I.

To recount the facts, we rely on the record of the suppression hearings.

A.

On September 28, 2014, one or more officers from the Pemberton Township Police Department stopped Darius Carter while he was driving. (It is unclear from the record how many officers were involved in the stop.) The words "Garden State" were covered on the car's license plate, and the basis for the stop was a suspected violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-33.

Carter was driving without a license, and the police learned that he had two outstanding arrest warrants. The police arrested Carter and later found about one-half ounce of heroin and a small amount of cocaine on him.

A Burlington County grand jury indicted Carter and charged him with fourth-degree tampering with evidence, N.J.S.A. 2C:28-6(1), and four drug-related offenses.

Carter moved to suppress the drugs seized. Because the parties essentially agreed on the relevant facts, no testimony was presented at the suppression hearing. The parties did not dispute that a license plate frame covered the words "Garden State" on the plate, and neither party argued that any other part of the plate was covered.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress. After reviewing an exhibit that depicted the license plate, the court found that the words "Garden State" were covered, but the rest of the plate was visible. The trial judge concluded the stop was pretextual but was "[n]onetheless ... supported by the statute." The court found the law unambiguously barred concealing any markings on a license plate, not just the plate's registration numbers.

In connection with the above stop, Carter pled guilty on February 15, 2017 to second-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(a)(1) and (b)(2), one of the counts in the indictment. To resolve an unrelated indictment, he also pled to third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute, N.J.S.A. 2C:35-5(a)(1) and (b)(3). He was sentenced to an aggregate term of ten years’ imprisonment with a five-year period of parole ineligibility.

Carter appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed his conviction and sentence. The court rejected Carter's argument that N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 is only violated "when the letters and numbers composing the vehicle's registration are obstructed." The court instead found that the statute's plain language "expressly prohibits even the partial concealment of any marking on the license plate," including the words "Garden State."

B.

On April 17, 2016, a police officer from the Deptford Township Police Department stopped the car Miguel Roman-Rosado was driving. The officer testified he "was on a proactive detail" -- "stop[ping] a lot of cars for motor vehicle infractions and ... then try[ing to] develop criminal investigations from that."

While driving right behind Roman-Rosado, the officer noticed a license plate bracket around the rear license plate that partially covered the words "Garden State." According to the officer, the frame covered about ten or fifteen percent of the bottom of the letters. Nonetheless, the officer said he could clearly recognize the words "Garden State." The testimony at the hearing focused only on those words. A redacted photo of the license plate and frame appear at Appendix A.

The officer stopped the car based on a suspected violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-33. The car's registered owner was in the front passenger seat, and her child was in the right rear seat. When asked for his credentials, Roman-Rosado provided a state identification card but did not have a driver's license. The officer called dispatch and learned that Roman-Rosado had two outstanding arrest warrants. The officer then called for backup to arrest Roman-Rosado.

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    • New Jersey Superior Court – Appellate Division
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    ...Constitution "provides greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than the Fourth Amendment." State v. Carter, 247 N.J. 488, 504, 255 A.3d 1139 (2021). Compliance with a knock-and-announce warrant requirement is a critical predicate for a reasonable search under our State......
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    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • 21 Junio 2022
    ...on or after the effective date.That construction is consistent with the doctrine of constitutional avoidance. See State v. Carter, 247 N.J. 488, 520, 255 A.3d 1139 (2021) (stating that, in some settings, "the doctrine of constitutional avoidance calls for a narrow interpretation"); State v.......
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    • 15 Julio 2022
    ...New Jersey provides greater protection from unreasonable searches and seizures than does the Fourth Amendment, see State v. Carter, 247 N.J. 488, 529-30, 255 A.3d 1139 (2021), from self-incrimination than does the Fifth Amendment, see State v. O'Neill, 193 N.J. 148, 176-77, 936 A.2d 438 (20......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Probable cause and reasonable suspicion: arrests, seizures, stops and frisks
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Suppressing Criminal Evidence Fourth amendment searches and seizures
    • 1 Abril 2022
    ...that under the New Jersey constitution it is unreasonable to restrict liberty when there is no violation of a law. State v. Carter , 255 A.3d 1139 (N.J. 2021). Similarly, a stop based on an officer’s incorrect assessment of the facts does not violate the Fourth Amendment if the officer’s mi......

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