While many New Jersey drivers think the police can stop anyone they wish based on their observations, the truth is there are specific reasons that must apply at the time of the stop. Also known as a primary traffic offense, these have long included license plate displaying and illumination. The problem with this practice by police officers in the Garden State is that it is commonly used as a reason to search the vehicle and investigate the occupants. This practice was recently taken to trial by two defendants who were arrested for drug possession, among other charges, by claiming a defense of unlawful arrest after the officer admitted in court that he had stopped them primarily to search the vehicle.
Search and seizure rules for officers
Contrary to popular belief, police officers must not only have a valid lawful reason to stop any driver, but they must also have verifiable, reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed to request to search a vehicle. The reasons need not be extensive either, such as the odor of marijuana. However, the police cannot stop whomever they please without observing valid traffic violations to justify the stop.
New Jersey Supreme Court ruling
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendants in this case, largely because the license plate on the vehicle was only partially obscured. The pertinent information regarding vehicle registration was visible to the arresting officer except for part of the “Garden State” lettering that’s on all New Jersey license plates. Now traffic violations involving obscured license plates will be limited to blocking information needed to identify a vehicle.
This is a prime example of how cases can be won when officers have not complied with lawful traffic stop rules. This officer protocol evasion has also resulted in many people getting a criminal record by pleading guilty as opposed to fighting the charges.