Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
Between the use of license plate readers and police officers attempting to pull motor vehicle operators over for any possible reason you have to get every equipment problem in your car fixed immediately. This is especially true if you were driving while suspended due to other traffic infractions, failure to pay fines, failure to appear in court. There is a substantial push by the Attorney General’s office creating guidelines and directives that support, promote, and encourage police to stop every possible motor vehicle operator over for any possible reason. This is to ensure that the operators are not driving while suspended due to prior DUI convictions. With the introduction of the fourth-grade driving while suspended jail term for DWI convicted operators the police are on the lookout.
Minor Vehicle Infractions Can Lead to Convictions or Even Jail
This case is a perfect example of how a minor motor vehicle equipment violation can create jail terms and criminal convictions.
The issue in this case is the status of New Jersey law concerning the number of rear tail lights that are supposed to be working.
With the introduction of the middle over head brake light by auto manufacturers there is an increase in conflict between federal motor vehicle regulations and New Jersey motor vehicle traffic laws.
New Jersey law, pursuant to NJSA 39:3- 66 requires all lamps must be in good working order. The officer testified that he usually stops vehicles for this minor infraction and give them a warning and let them go. He also testified that he was exercising his “community caretaking function” when effectuating the motor vehicle stop to warn the driver.
In this case the driver had a suspended license for a third offense DWI. Under my recent blogs addressing driving while suspended, this defendant was indicted on the 4th offense of driving while suspended due to a second or greater DWI conviction. He was looking at jail time for the driving while suspended charge.
When the Municipal Court suppressed the motor vehicle stop due to the “baseline requirement” that only one light work the court found that the motor vehicle code creating opportunities for confusion and uncertainty for Law-enforcement and, although he found the officer to have testified honestly and candidly, and the motor vehicle code did not declare all original equipment lamps and lights must be working. The law division judge found that the statute requires only two properly functioning rear lights, one on each side, and in this case even with one nonfunctional and rear light the defendant’s vehicle still had three properly operating lights and there was no violation of law.
The law division judge ruled the officer had a “mistaken view of the law in question and therefore his suspicion of a violation of the motor vehicle code was not objective and reasonable and could not justify a warrantless stop of the defendant.” The court also rejected the states reliance in the law division on the “community caretaking function “.
The appellate court commenced its analysis by turning to a recent United States Supreme Court decision that found: “a police officer’s mistake of law can still be used to give rise to reasonable suspicion necessary to uphold the seizure of a vehicle under the United States Constitution and the fourth amendment.
The court examine the language finding: “the reality that an officer may suddenly confront a situation in the field as to whether the application of a statute is is unclear even if it becomes clear later. So long as the mistake is objectively reasonable it may give rise to reasonable suspicion”. As a result this Appellate Division through out New Jersey long-standing law that an officer has to have a good faith belief that there has been a violation of law due to the ambiguity of the New Jersey motor vehicle statutes involving vehicles. Remember this case involves two different motor vehicle equipment violation statutes. The first requires “two tail lights” and the second statute requiring “all lambs “shall be kept in good working”.
The court goes on to indicate there has been no case addressing this issue and there has been no statutory correction by the legislature addressing the conflicts between these two motor vehicle code sections. As a result the court relied on the officers testimony and interpretation of the statute which permits him to stop a driver and merely “advise” him or her of the nonfunctioning lights without any penalty.
In toto, as a result the court found the officers stop was reasonable, and in good faith without any pretext or lack of probable cause. Further the court found the limited nature of the police officers the tension of the defendant not unreasonable and not too intrusive.
Jeffrey S. Hark, Esq.