On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 270 N.J. Super. 318 (1994).
Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi, and Stein join in this opinion.
This case concerns the validity of a search following an automobile stop. The Appellate Division remanded the matter for a new hearing on defendant's motion to suppress drugs seized from his car. The facts of the case are set forth in the opinion of the Appellate Division, 270 N.J. Super. 318 (1994).
We granted certification, 136 N.J. 298 (1994), to consider whether the Appellate Division's opinion placed too great a burden on the State to justify the stop. The specific concerns that the State raises are whether the Appellate Division incorrectly held that "the State was required to prove that defendant's moving from the center to the right lane of [traffic actually] 'affected' other traffic within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 39:4-126 * * * "; and whether the Appellate Division incorrectly equated the evidence needed to stop or arrest with the evidence needed to convict.
N.J.S.A. 39:4-126 requires a motorist to signal a lane change "in the event any other traffic may be affected by such movement." (Emphasis added.) The statute, however, does not require that a signal be given whenever a lane change is made. In this case, a State trooper testified that while driving in the left lane on a three-lane divided highway, he observed defendant, driving a few car lengths ahead, move from the center lane into the right lane
without a signal. The trooper stopped defendant's vehicle on that basis.
We agree with the State that it need not establish that the move actually affected traffic. That is not the language of the statute. We further agree that the State need not prove that a motor-vehicle violation occurred as a matter of law. Constitutional precedent requires only reasonableness on the part of the police, not legal perfection. Therefore, the State need prove only that the police lawfully stopped the car, not that it could convict the driver of the motor-vehicle offense. The Attorney General emphasized, and we agree, that "the trooper needed only a reasonable and articulable suspicion that defendant's failure to signal may have affected other traffic * * * ." "Other traffic" could include a trooper's vehicle. The language--may affect traffic--implies that traffic that may be affected is fairly close and visible, and that the signal need not be dictated solely by concerns of safety and accident avoidance. Motorists in the vicinity whose movements may be affected must be made aware of a driver's intentions. See State v. Moss, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 1994) (explaining that common dictionary meaning of "may" is "to be in some degree likely to" and holding that there was other traffic that to some degree was likely to be affected by the turn of defendant's vehicle).
The record below does not contain an articulation of such factors as the objective basis for the stop. The oral argument before us did not dispel the need for such a record. The only evidence of which we are aware is that the motorist was moving away from the trooper's car, movement that would appear to facilitate the movement of the trooper's car.
The statute does not require a signal for every lane change. Perhaps it should. Because the statute does not contain such a requirement, the officer ordering a stop must have some articulable basis for concluding that the lane change might have an effect on traffic.
The hearing on the motion to suppress focused not on that issue, but on the more conventional issues of what conduct, after the stop, authorized the search of the car. The testimony was in sharp conflict. Defendant insisted that no contraband was in plain view and the trooper told him that he (the trooper) had ...