State v. Sutherland, A–14 September Term 2016

Citation176 A.3d 775,231 N.J. 429
Decision Date11 January 2018
Docket NumberA–14 September Term 2016,077807
Parties STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff–Respondent, v. Ryan SUTHERLAND, Defendant–Appellant.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)

231 N.J. 429
176 A.3d 775

STATE of New Jersey, Plaintiff–Respondent,
Ryan SUTHERLAND, Defendant–Appellant.

A–14 September Term 2016

Supreme Court of New Jersey.

Argued October 10, 2017
Decided January 11, 2018

Joseph P. Rem, Jr., argued the cause for appellant (Rem Law Group, attorneys; Joseph P. Rem, Jr., of counsel, and Tamra Katcher, of counsel and on the brief).

Claudia Joy Demitro, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney; Claudia Joy Demitro, of counsel and on the brief, and Paula C. Jordao, Assistant Morris County Prosecutor, on the brief).

Alexander R. Shalom argued the cause for amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (Edward L. Barocas, Legal Director, attorney; Alexander R. Shalom, Edward L. Barocas and Jeanne M. LoCicero, on the brief).

Paula C. Jordao, Assistant Prosecutor, submitted a letter brief on behalf of respondent (Fredric M. Knapp, Morris County Prosecutor, attorney).

JUSTICE LaVECCHIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

231 N.J. 431

This Court has acknowledged that a reasonable mistake of fact on the part of a police officer will not render a search or arrest predicated on that mistake unconstitutional. See State v. Handy, 206 N.J. 39, 53–54, 18 A.3d 179 (2011). In this matter, a police officer pulled over a car under the belief that the vehicle was in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3–61(a) and –66 because one of the vehicle's taillights was not operational. The trial court determined that the officer was mistaken about the law and granted defendant's motion to suppress the fruits of the motor vehicle stop. The Appellate Division reversed. The panel determined that the relevant motor vehicle statutes were ambiguous and that, applying the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court in Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014), the officer's stop of defendant's car constituted at most an objectively reasonable mistake of law that should be treated in the same

231 N.J. 432

manner as a mistake of fact. Accordingly, the panel held that the officer's mistake of law did not require suppression of the motor vehicle stop.

We now reverse. The Appellate Division erred in concluding that the holding in Heien is applicable here. Because the motor vehicle statutes pertinent here are not ambiguous, we need not consider importing Heien into the determination of this matter. Thus, we do not address the arguments raised herein that Heien's mistake-of-law analysis is not reconcilable with our state constitutional jurisprudence. 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. We remand to the Appellate Division for its consideration of the State's alternative argument, which the panel did not reach, that the stop should be sustained based on the community caretaking doctrine.

176 A.3d 777



At the suppression hearing in this matter, the following facts were adduced. Officer Michael Carletta of the Mount Olive Police Department was the sole witness.

At about 9:00 p.m. on the evening of February 3, 2014, Officer Carletta was on motor vehicle patrol traveling southbound on Route 206. A Toyota Camry passed him traveling northbound. Looking in his rearview mirror, the officer observed that the northbound vehicle appeared to have a malfunctioning taillight. Although the vehicle had four taillights in total, two on each side, and although only one light on the rear passenger side was not illuminated, Officer Carletta believed that the vehicle was in violation of the motor vehicle code. He made a U-turn and began to follow the vehicle. After confirming that one of the vehicle's taillights was not illuminated, he executed a motor vehicle stop.

231 N.J. 433

Officer Carletta testified that, in such situations, it is typical police practice to give the driver a warning rather than a summons.

After stopping and approaching the vehicle, Officer Carletta asked the driver, defendant Ryan Sutherland, for his driver's license, motor vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. Defendant initially stated that he did not have his driver's license with him but then quickly admitted that he did not have a valid driver's license. After obtaining defendant's name and date of birth, Officer Carletta returned to his vehicle to check defendant's information with police dispatch.

Upon confirming that defendant's license was in fact suspended, Officer Carletta issued defendant two summonses: driving with a suspended license in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3–40, and failure to maintain the vehicle's "lamps" in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3–66. Officer Carletta explained to defendant that he had been stopped because one of his taillights was not working and that he could no longer drive the vehicle because he had a suspended driver's license. The officer allowed defendant to leave the scene on the condition that his passenger drive the car to its intended destination.


On June 2, 2014, defendant was charged in municipal court with fourth-degree operating a motor vehicle during a period of license suspension in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:40–26. A Morris County grand jury later indicted defendant and charged him with fourth-degree operating a motor vehicle during a period of license suspension for a second or subsequent driving-while-intoxicated conviction in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:40–26(b).

Defendant filed a motion to suppress the traffic stop and to dismiss the indictment,1 arguing that the traffic stop constituted

231 N.J. 434

an unreasonable seizure because his vehicle had three operable taillights, in compliance with the requirements of N.J.S.A. 39:3–61(a) and –66. The State countered that the stop was lawful because the malfunctioning taillight provided Officer Carletta with reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle and because the stop was lawful under the "community caretaking" function by which police officers engage in protecting public safety. Officer Carletta testified at the hearing that he had

176 A.3d 778

stopped the vehicle both because he believed that any malfunctioning taillight constituted a violation of the statute and because he was engaging in community caretaking by letting defendant know that his vehicle was not in proper working order.

The trial court granted defendant's motion to suppress evidence resulting from the motor vehicle stop, but the court denied his motion to dismiss the indictment on the grounds of faulty instructions provided to the grand jury. On the motor vehicle stop, the trial court agreed with defendant that Officer Carletta's understanding of the maintenance-of-lamps statute had been "incorrect" and that defendant had not violated the statute because he had at least one functioning taillight on each side of the vehicle. Relying heavily on State v. Puzio, 379 N.J. Super. 378, 878 A.2d 857 (App. Div. 2005), as well as an unpublished 2009 Appellate Division decision, the trial court concluded that Officer Carletta's erroneous interpretation of the law—even though it was a "common sense" and "practical" approach to interpreting the statute—could not pass constitutional scrutiny.

The State sought leave to appeal on the grounds that (1) Officer Carletta had reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop; (2) Puzio's continuing vitality was put into question by the United States Supreme Court's decision in Heien, in which the Supreme Court held that objectively reasonable mistakes of law can provide

231 N.J. 435

the reasonable suspicion necessary for a constitutional stop; and (3) the stop was lawful under the community caretaking doctrine. The Appellate Division granted leave to appeal and reversed the trial court in a published opinion. State v. Sutherland, 445 N.J. Super. 358, 138 A.3d 551 (2016).

Relying extensively on Heien, the panel determined that "even if the officer was mistaken that the inoperable tail light constituted a Title 39 violation, he had an objectively reasonable basis for stopping defendant's vehicle." Id. at 360, 138 A.3d 551. In reaching that conclusion, the panel questioned the continuing vitality of Puzio, which had held "that where an officer mistakenly believes that driving conduct constitutes a violation of the law, but in actuality it does not, no objectively reasonable basis exists upon which to justify a vehicle stop." Puzio, 379 N.J. Super. at 383, 878 A.2d 857 (collecting cases).2 The panel reasoned that Puzio had been decided before Heien and that Heien's"well-reasoned" holding had cast doubt on Puzio's continuing validity. Sutherland, 445 N.J. Super. at 366–67, 138 A.3d 551. The panel went on to conclude that the statute at issue here was ambiguous and that even if Officer Carletta's interpretation of the statute was an objectively reasonable mistake of law, the stop was permissible pursuant to Heien"[b]ecause...

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23 cases
  • State v. Carter
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • 2 Agosto 2021
    ...Id. at 80, 135 S.Ct. 530.This Court adopted the reasonable mistake of fact doctrine in State v. Sutherland. See 231 N.J. 429, 431, 437, 176 A.3d 775 (2018) ("[A] reasonable mistake of fact on the part of a police officer will not render a search or arrest predicated on that mistake unconsti......
  • Nieves v. Office of the Pub. Defender
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • 15 Abril 2020
    ...the inquiry here. The legislative definitions are straightforward, making their intent clear and unambiguous. See State v. Sutherland, 231 N.J. 429, 443-44, 176 A.3d 775 (2018) ("When interpreting a statute we look first, and foremost, to its actual language and ascribe to its words their o......
  • State v. Meyers
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Iowa
    • 31 Enero 2020
    ...illegal stop), aff'd on other grounds by 226 N.J. 20, 140 A.3d 535, 538 (2016) (declining to reach Heien issue); State v. Sutherland , 231 N.J. 429, 176 A.3d 775, 776 (2018) (again declining to reach Heien issue); State v. Tercero , 467 S.W.3d 1, 10–11 (Tex. App. 2015) (declining to adopt H......
  • State v. Bell
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • 16 Mayo 2022
    ...interpretation is to look to the plain language of the statute and attribute to its words their ordinary meaning. State v. Sutherland, 231 N.J. 429, 443-44, 176 A.3d 775 (2018). "If in ascribing to those words their ‘ordinary meaning and significance,’ the Legislators' intent is self-eviden......
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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 Archive Suppressing Criminal Evidence - 2020 Contents
    • 31 Julio 2020
    ...Suspicion: Arrests, Seizures, Stops and Frisks §5:53 808 S.E.2d 245 (Ga. 2017). A similar ruling can be found in State v. Sutherland , 176 A.3d 775 (N.J. 2018), where the court found an oficer’s mistake of fact unreasonable because he mistakenly thought the defendant’s vehicle required more......

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