Police could not stop for only one broken taillight
State v. Sutherland (A-14-16)
Decided January 11, 2018
LaVECCHIA, J., writing for the Court.
The Court considers the constitutionality of an officer’s stop of a motor vehicle 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.
A Toyota Camry that appeared to have a malfunctioning taillight passed Officer Carletta. 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 executed a motor vehicle stop. Officer Carletta asked the driver, defendant Ryan Sutherland, for his driver’s license, motor vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. Officer Carletta returned to his vehicle to check defendant’s information. Upon confirming that defendant’s license was suspended, Officer Carletta issued two summonses: driving with a suspended license, and failure to maintain the vehicle’s “lamps” in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-66. 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.
Defendant filed a motion to suppress the traffic stop and to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the traffic stop constituted 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 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 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. The court concluded that Officer Carletta’s erroneous interpretation of the law could not pass constitutional scrutiny.
The Appellate Division granted leave to appeal and reversed the trial court. 445 N.J. Super. 358 (2016). Relying extensively on Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 530 (2014), 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. In reaching that conclusion, the panel questioned the continuing vitality of State v. 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.” 379 N.J. Super. 378, 383 (App. Div. 2005). 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. 445 N.J. Super. at 368–70. The panel’s reasoning made it unnecessary to reach the State’s argument about the applicability of the community caretaking doctrine. Id. at 371.
The Court granted defendant leave to appeal. 228 N.J. 246 (2016).
HELD: The Appellate Division erred in concluding that the holding in Heien is applicable here. The motor vehicle statutes pertinent here are not ambiguous. 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.
1. Under previous case law in this state, a police officer’s objectively reasonable mistake of fact does not render a search or arrest unconstitutional. Consistent with federal jurisprudence, the Court has held that Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution provides room for some mistakes by police. However, that principle applies only when the police behave reasonably.
2. Until the Appellate Division decision in this case, the jurisprudence of New Jersey appellate courts had not held that reasonable mistakes of law would pass constitutional muster. In fact, courts had reached the opposite conclusion. See Puzio, 379 N.J. Super. at 382-83. The Puzio decision noted “a clear distinction between the present situation and those presented in cases where the officer correctly understands the statute but arguably misinterprets the facts concerning whether a vehicle, or operator, has violated the statute.” Id. at 382. In explaining its reasoning, the panel stated that “[i]f officers were permitted to stop vehicles where it is objectively determined that there is no legal basis for their action, ‘the potential for abuse of traffic infractions as pretext for effecting stops seems boundless and the costs to privacy rights excessive.’” Id. at 384. The panel also viewed the creation of an exception for a mistake of law as inconsistent with the exclusionary rule because “it would remove the incentive for police to make certain that they properly understand the law that they are entrusted to enforce and obey.” Ibid.
3. In Heien, the United States Supreme Court considered a police officer’s reasonable but erroneous interpretation of a motor vehicle statute. Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion noted that “the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.’” 135 S. Ct. at 536. After explaining that “[t]o be reasonable is not to be perfect,” and that the Fourth Amendment allows for reasonable mistakes of fact, the Chief Justice went on to explain that the Fourth Amendment reasonableness inquiry applies to mistakes of law just as it applies to mistakes of fact. Ibid. Based on the language of the North Carolina statute involved in Heien, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that the officer’s error of law was reasonable and thus provided the officer with reasonable suspicion to justify the traffic stop. Id. at 540. Importantly, Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Ginsburg, wrote a concurrence that has garnered support with states that have chosen to follow the Heien approach in their own search and seizure analyses. Critical to her agreement with the majority was her belief that erroneous interpretations of the law will pass Fourth Amendment scrutiny only when the law at issue is “‘so doubtful in construction’ that a reasonable judge could agree with the officer’s view.” Id. at 541 (Kagan, J., concurring). Such cases must necessarily involve a “really difficult” or “very hard question of statutory interpretation” and will thus be “exceedingly rare.” Ibid.
4. A number of states have subsequently adopted Heien’s holding. Importantly, however, a number of states have either followed or acknowledged Justice Kagan’s narrow interpretation of an objectively reasonable mistake of law. In State v. Scriven, 226 N.J. 20 (2016), the Court did not reach the question of whether to adopt Heien. The officer’s mistake of law in that case was not objectively reasonable and thus did not qualify as the type of “rare” case that involves an objectively reasonable mistake of law.
5. Defendant’s traffic stop was premised on perceived violations of two statutes. The statutes read together require that a motor vehicle only have two working rear lamps, with at least one working lamp on each side. See N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a); N.J.S.A. 39:3-66. N.J.S.A. 39:3-66 mandates that the lamps “required by this article” must be kept in good working order. The statutes require one working taillight on each side of a vehicle. Thus, if a vehicle has two taillights on each side of the vehicle—more than the law requires—and one of those multiple taillights on one side is not working, a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66, as was assumed and charged here, has not occurred. The officer’s erroneous application of the functioning taillight requirement was not an objectively reasonable mistake of law. This case does not present a basis for considering the application of Heien. Simply put, this was not a good stop. The judgment of the Appellate Division, premised on an application of Heien to the stop in this matter, is reversed.
6. The State also asserted community caretaking as an alternative basis to support the stop. The Appellate Division did not reach the argument in light of the manner in which it resolved the case. Accordingly, a remand is appropriate to allow the Appellate Division to address the unresolved argument advanced by the State.
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED. The matter is REMANDED to the Appellate Division for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, AND TIMPONE join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA’s opinion.