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NEW JERSEY — Police won’t be allowed to conduct stops of cars whose license plate frames obscure only part of the plate, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled Monday in a case that could have far-reaching implications for drivers around the state.

The court’s ruling in the cases of two drivers stopped in 2014 and 2016 addresses a violation that is issued about 100,000 times per year in New Jersey and often is used as a pretext for police searches, the court wrote.

Defendants Darius Carter and Miguel Roman-Rosado were each stopped because their license plates had frames that obscured the words “Garden State.” The officer who stopped Roman-Rosado testified he was seeking to stop cars for motor vehicle infractions to try to develop criminal investigations.

In each case, after the stops, the men were found to have outstanding arrest warrants. Officers found drugs on Carter and an unloaded handgun on Roman-Rosado. Both men sought to suppress the evidence based on an unlawful search.

Monday’s ruling held that Roman-Rosado’s 2016 stop and search was unlawful because the frame obscured only about 10 to 15% of the words “Garden State.” A lower court had held the search was legal and cited a state law prohibiting frames that obscure any part of any marking imprinted on the plate.

The Supreme Court upheld the stop of Carter, however, on the grounds that his license plate frame completely covered the words. But it agreed with both defendants that a broad reading of the law raises constitutional questions since most people would have no idea they were in violation.

“Frames supplied by dealerships, booster organizations, non-profit groups and others often cover the bottom of ‘Garden State’ or the top of ‘New Jersey,'” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote for a unanimous court. “Simply driving a car off the dealer’s lot with that type of license plate frame would amount to a violation of the law and give officers a basis to stop the car.”
The state argued that even if an officer’s interpretation of the law were in error, the stop should be considered lawful, because the mistake was objectively reasonable. It cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a North Carolina case that upheld a stop even though the officer may have misinterpreted an ambiguously worded state law used to justify the stop.

New Jersey won’t adopt that exception, Rabner wrote, adding that while officers “suffer no penalty if they make a reasonable mistake,” individuals who are stopped or searched based on a mistaken interpretation of the law suffer real harm.

Through a spokesperson, the state attorney general’s office said it is reviewing the court’s opinion and “is committed to ensuring that all law enforcement quickly implement the Court’s holding.”

The ACLU New Jersey, which argued as a friend of the court on behalf of the defendants, said the ruling will benefit people of color who are disproportionately affected by traffic stops.

“By placing limits on this long-standing practice, New Jersey is beginning to remove the veil that has acted as a legal justification for pretextual policing and instead prioritize the rights of people,” senior staff attorney Karen Thompson said in an emailed statement.

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