On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, MA No. 04-078.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Weissbard, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE COMMITTEE ON OPINIONS
Before Judges Stern, Weissbard and Lisa.
Defendant Christopher Puzio appeals from his conviction of driving while intoxicated (DWI), N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, after a trial de novo in the Law Division*fn1 . The sole issue raised on appeal relates to the validity of the motor vehicle stop which led to defendant's arrest. We conclude that the stop was unwarranted because the officer, who misunderstood the meaning of a statute, did not have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that defendant had committed a motor vehicle offense. Accordingly, we reverse.
The facts are quite simple and essentially undisputed. On May 26, 2004, defendant was operating a passenger vehicle, an Acura sports coupe, westbound on Bloomfield Avenue in Caldwell. Officer Pelligrino was on routine patrol, also traveling westbound about twenty feet behind defendant's car. Pelligrino was in the right lane of travel, defendant was in the left. Pelligrino's attention was attracted by the fact that defendant's car had commercial license plates, with the word "commercial" directly on the rear plate. Pelligrino's experience taught him that the "x" in defendant's license plate number - XC559H - also signified a commercial plate. Pelligrino called in the license plate to his headquarters and was informed that the car was registered to a business. Pelligrino noticed that there was no placard on the right side of the vehicle displaying the name and address of the business. As a result, Pelligrino moved to the left lane and was able to observe that there was no placard or identifying information on the left side either.
Based on his observations, Pelligrino believed that the vehicle was being operated in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-46a, which requires display of the business name and address on a commercial vehicle. Based on that belief, Pelligrino stopped the vehicle and made the observations that led to defendant's arrest. Defendant was issued summonses for DWI, failure to exhibit an insurance card, N.J.S.A. 39:3-29, and violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-46a.
Defendant moved to suppress, arguing that the stop was unlawful. At the suppression hearing, Pelligrino conceded that he had no basis on which to stop defendant's car other than the apparent violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-46a. The municipal court judge denied the motion, reasoning that the stop was made "in good faith and based on articulable suspicion." The judge found that the correct interpretation of the statute was not at issue, merely whether the officer "had a basis to make the stop, based on his belief. I find that it was a good faith belief." As a result, the officer had a right to stop the vehicle "to make further inquiry."
After denial of his motion, defendant entered a guilty plea to DWI and, pursuant to a plea agreement, the State agreed to dismissal of the other two charges. Defendant was sentenced to a seven-month suspension of driving privileges, twelve to forty-eight hours in an Intoxicated Driver Resource Center, as well as appropriate fines, penalties, costs, and surcharges. The penalties were stayed pending appeal.
On de novo review, the Law Division judge was also of the view that the proper interpretation of the statute was not an issue the court needed to resolve. Rather, "[t]he issue is whether or not the police officer had a reasonable and articulable suspicion to pull the driver over based on his interpretation of that statute." The judge concluded that the officer did have a reasonable articulable suspicion to stop the car and therefore denied defendant's suppression motion. The judge also stayed the penalties imposed pending this appeal.
As both judges correctly observed, in order to justify a motor vehicle stop, the officer need only have "an articulable and reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a motor vehicle violation." State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470-71 (1999) (quoting State v. Smith, 306 N.J. Super. 370, 380 (App. Div. 1997)). In this case, if N.J.S.A. 39:4-46a means what Pelligrino believed it meant, he clearly had an articulable and reasonable basis for the stop. The vehicle had commercial plates and was registered to a business, but had no business-identifying information visible on either side. The statute reads in pertinent part as follows:
Every vehicle used for commercial purposes on a street or highway, except for passenger automobiles and vehicles owned or leased by a pharmacy and utilized for the transportation or delivery of drugs, shall have conspicuously displayed thereon, or on a name plate affixed thereto, the name of the owner, lessee or lessor of the vehicle and the name of the municipality in which the owner, lessee or lessor has his principal place of business. . . . The sign or name plate shall be in plain view and not less than three inches high. Where available space for lettering is limited, either by the design of the vehicle or by the presence of other legally specified identification markings, making a strict compliance herewith impractical, the size of the lettering required by this section shall be as close to three inches high as is possible, within the limited space area, provided the name is clearly visible and readily identifiable. . . . No person shall operate or drive or ...