Have you ever been convinced that a police officer pulled you over for something very minor in an attempt to find a reason to charge you with a more serious crime? For instance, something as small as having your license plate frame partially blocked? A case, State v. Roman-Rosado, 238 N.J. 455, held that license plate frame partially covering or blocking the imprinted text on the plate is not a reason for a legal stop. Roman-Rosado was pulled over in 2017 for this exact reason and his vehicle was subsequently searched without a warrant and he was charged with a much larger crime. Fortunately for him, after three years of court proceedings, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed that his license plate covering, which blocked part of the text on the plate, was not reason enough to pull him over. Fortunately for you, you may get to reap the benefits of the court’s decision.
In October of 2017, Mr. Roman-Rosado was pulled over by Deptford Township Police Officer Thomas Warrington because a portion of “Garden State” on Roman-Rosado’s license plate was covered by the plate frame, though the words were still legible. While Mr. Roman-Rosado was removed from his car, Warrington reached in and grabbed an unidentifiable object partially under the car’s seat which turned out to be an unloaded handgun. The gun was seized and the defendant was charged with second-degree possession of a weapon.
Mr. Roman-Rosado’s case progressed through the courts as he and his lawyers attempted to suppress the search and seizure of the handgun under appeal until it reached the New Jersey Supreme Court. Ultimately, it was decided in January of 2020 that there was no reasonable suspicion to pull over Mr. Roman-Rosado for his license plate, and thus the seizure of his gun was inadmissible as evidence for his possession charge.
The main issue with this case was whether the imprinted text on Mr. Roman-Rosado’s plate was “concealed” or “obscured,” in reference to N.J.S.A. 39:3-33, which states that “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. . .” Neither “conceals” nor “obscures” are defined in the statute, but it is understood to indicate that a part of license plate marking is “less legible”. With “less legible” meaning an inability to define text imprinted onto the license plate, the Supreme Court found that the partial blockage of “Garden State” in no way impeded upon its legibility. Thus, Mr. Roman-Rosado’s license plate should not have prompted the subsequent police interaction and that the search of his car was unconstitutional.
Interestingly, this court decision follows that of State v. Witt (2015), which had eliminated the requirement of exigent circumstances for a warrantless police search of a suspect’s motor vehicle. The ruling on Mr. Roman-Rosado’s case could set the precedent for exempting perceived license plate infractions as permissible grounds for stopping a vehicle. That being said, should another violation be found on a motor vehicle, an officer needs only probably cause to search the vehicle without a warrant.
The Law Offices of Eric B. Morrell are committed to fighting for our clients rights. If you believe you have been pulled over and your car searched without probable cause for this issue or any other suspicion of a traffic code violation, please contact our offices for a consultation.