Walk through any crowded parking lot and look carefully at the license plates. Many if not most of them have frames that cover up part of the markings on the plate. Car dealers throughout the State supply many of those frames to advertise their dealerships. A variety of other organizations do likewise.
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.
According to the State, those examples all have one thing in common: the cars’ drivers have violated the law, and the police have the right to stop motorists and ticket them because part of the markings on their license plates are covered.
The relevant statute, N.J.S.A. 39:3-33, reads in part as follows: “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 . . . .”
In 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.
Police officers have unfettered discretion in deciding how to enforce the statute. The Attorney General was unaware of any guidance that directs an officer’s exercise of discretion.
A New Jersey Supreme Court decision released today will put the breaks on many of those tickets.
The Supreme Court appeal is based on a consolidation from cases from a number of defendants who were stopped while driving. The stops were pretextual: officers stopped each defendant because part of their license plates were covered, but the purpose was to try to develop a criminal investigation. The police found contraband in all cases, which formed the grounds for defendants’ convictions.
In a unanimous decision released today, the supreme court found that the statute requires that “all markings on a license plate be legible or identifiable”, and therefore, 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. However if those phrases were partly covered yet still recognizable, there would be no violation.
When applying the above test, trial courts will be asked to evaluate whether license plate markings are legible or identifiable from the perspective of an objectively reasonable person.