A Practical Interpretation of the Statute Banning Concealment or Obscuring Markings on Automobile License Plates

State v. Carter, ___ N.J. ___ (2021); State v. Roman-Rosado, ___ N.J. ___ (2021). These two consolidated appeals, in which Chief Justice Rabner authored a unanimous opinion issued today, dealt with N.J.S.A. 39:-3-33. As relevant to today’s ruling, that statute states “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 . . . .”

The question was whether the statute is unconstitutionally vague or overbroad, or whether it “invites discriminatory enforcement.” Those issues were raised by the fact that, as the Chief Justice observed, “[i]n 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.” That is because many vehicles have license plate frames, issued by car dealers as advertising or by other organizations for various purposes, that obscure some part of the markings on license plates. “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.”

Defendants were both stopped under the statute. In the Carter case, the words “Garden State” were entirely obscured by the license plate frame. In Roman-Rosado, the officer who stopped that defendant “testified that only ten or fifteen percent of the words ‘Garden State’ were obstructed, and he conceded he could clearly identify the phrase on the license plate. The trial judge found the plate was ‘without question’ ‘a readable license plate.’”

In both cases, searches of the vehicles after the stops revealed contraband, and defendants were each convicted of crimes. The Law Division in Carter denied a defense motion to suppress the stop, even though it was pretextual, because the statute barred concealing any marking on a license plate. The Appellate Division affirmed. In Roman-Rosado, the Law Division likewise denied a motion to suppress, based on a literal view of the statute. But in that case the Appellate Division reversed, finding that the 10-15% obscuring of “Garden State” did not fall within section 33, and that the stop, and the search that resulted from that stop, were improper.

The Chief Justice’s opinion consumed 46 pages of text, plus an appendix that showed the license plate at issue in Roman-Rosado. The opinion ranges widely and carefully over the doctrines of vagueness overbreadth, and a number of other issues. But its holding can be summarized readily: finding that “section 33, if read broadly, raises serious constitutional concerns,” and choosing between a narrow view of the statute that “focuses on whether a license plate is legible, and a broader one that raises serious constitutional issues — the doctrine of constitutional avoidance calls for a narrow interpretation.” The Court thus held that:

“[S]ection 33 requires that all markings on a license plate be legible or identifiable. That interpretation is consistent with the plain meaning of the statute’s wording. If a license plate frame or holder conceals or obscures a marking such that a person cannot reasonably identify or discern the imprinted information, the driver would be in violation of the law.

In other words, a frame cannot cover any of the plate’s features to the point that a person cannot reasonably identify a marking. So, for example, if even a part of a single registration letter or number on a license plate is covered and not legible, the statute would apply because each of those characters is a separate marking. If ‘Garden State,’ ‘New Jersey,’ or some other phrase is covered to the point that the phrase cannot be identified, the law would likewise apply. But if those phrases were partly covered yet still recognizable, there would be no violation.”

That holding led to an affirmance in both cases. Since “Garden State” was completely obscured in Carter, the statute permitted a stop, and the search that followed was properly not suppressed. But the license plate markings in Roman-Rosado, only partially covered, were still legible. That stop was improper, as the Appellate Division had held.

Carter argued that prohibiting a license plate cover that completely obscured “Garden State” violated his First Amendment right to free speech. He relied on Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1977), in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that New Hampshire’s requirement that license plates display the motto “Live Free or Die” violated Wooley’s First Amendment rights. Chief Justice Rabner distinguished Wooley, however, since that case involved speech compelled by the government of a type that Wooley disagreed with. Here, there was no evidence that Carter disagreed with or found morally objectionable the phrase “Garden State.”

Today’s opinion may be most notable, however, for its ruling on an argument made by the State as to Roman-Rosado. The State contended that even if the Court held that that defendant had not violated section 33, Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54 (2014), which ruled that a stop and subsequent conviction should be upheld where the stop was the product of a police officer’s reasonable, but mistaken, interpretation of the law.

After a lengthy review of cases in which the Supreme Court of New Jersey had reached a different result under the New Jersey Constitution than did the United States Supreme Court under the federal Constitution, Chief Justice Rabner declined to follow Heien. The New Jersey Constitution, he said, “favors the protection of individual rights and is designed to vindicate them…. An officer’s reasonable but mistaken interpretation of a statute cannot change the fact that the law does not criminalize particular conduct. In other words, if a law does not establish an offense altogether, the reasonable nature of an officer’s mistake cannot transform an officer’s error into reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. If officers could search and seize a person under those circumstances, reasonable, good faith errors would erode individual rights that the State Constitution guarantees.” He noted that a number of other jurisdictions had taken that same view of Heien under their state Constitutions.