On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Municipal Appeal No. 02-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Carchman and Parrillo.
Following denial of his motion to suppress, defendant Marcus DeVincentis was found guilty in municipal court of a motor vehicle violation, N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 - obstructing a license plate - and subsequently pled guilty to refusal to submit to a breath test, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.2, offenses stemming from the same incident. On de novo review, the Law Division affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress and upheld defendant's guilty plea, imposing his municipal court sentence of a $36 fine and $33 court costs on the N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 violation, and on the breathalyzer refusal, a $306 fine; $33 court costs; $100 drunk driving enforcement fund surcharge; attendance at an Intoxicated Driver Resource Center; and a seven-month forfeiture of driving privilege, the latter of which was stayed pending appeal. Defendant appeals, and we affirm.
According to the State's proofs, on April 25, 2009, defendant was operating his motor vehicle on Route 70 in Lakehurst Borough, when he was pulled over by a police officer. The officer stopped defendant's vehicle because of the condition of his rear license plate. The words "Garden State" were almost wholly obscured by the license plate frame and the words "New Jersey" were obstructed in a "minimal way." As a result, defendant was issued a citation for violating N.J.S.A. 39:3-33, prohibiting obstruction of "any marking imprinted" on a vehicle license plate. Once pulled over, the officer suspected defendant was driving under the influence. At police headquarters, defendant refused to submit to a breathalyzer test and was also charged with a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.2 and N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.
Defendant filed a motion to suppress, which the municipal court judge denied. Following a hearing based on stipulated facts and photographs, the judge found defendant guilty of N.J.S.A. 39:3-33, and accepted defendant's guilty plea to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.2. On de novo review, the Law Division found that the language of N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 was "clear and unambiguous on its face" and that the words "Garden State" were "imprinted" and thus could not be obscured under the statute: "that nothing can be done or nothing can be mounted around a plate that would conceal or otherwise obscure any part of a marking imprinted upon the plate." Consequently, the court found the police officer had a reasonable and articulable basis to stop defendant's vehicle and therefore denied the motion to suppress. Because the words "Garden State" were wholly obscured, the judge found defendant guilty of N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 and imposed the municipal court's sentence.
On appeal, defendant argues that the court, as did the police officer, misconstrued N.J.S.A. 39:3-33, in that the term "imprinted" only applies to the "embossed letters and numbers assigned to the automobile on which the license plate is affixed." Because there was no objectively reasonable basis for believing that a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 had occurred, defendant argues that the investigatory stop was unconstitutional and the fruits thereof should be suppressed. We disagree.
In order to justify a motor vehicle stop, a police 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); State v. Puzio, 379 N.J. Super. 378, 381 (App. Div. 2005); State v. Smith, 306 N.J. Super. 370, 380 (App. Div. 1997). The issue here is whether the officer correctly interpreted N.J.S.A. 39:3-33, for if he had, he clearly had an articulable and reasonable basis for the stop.
The statute, which identifies various violations relating to the display of identification marks and registration plates, reads in pertinent part:
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 or any part of any insert which the director, as hereinafter provided, issues to be inserted in and attached to that registration plate or marker. [(Emphasis added).]
Contrary to defendant's argument, we read the statute to expressly prohibit even the partial obscuring of the writings or markings on a license plate. By its plain and unambiguous terms, N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 prohibits a license plate frame or identification marker "that conceals or otherwise obscures any part of any marking imprinted" on the license plate.
We disagree with defendant's constricted construction of the word "imprinted." That term is not limited, as defendant suggests, to the "embossed" identifying letters and numbers on the license plate. Rather, the term "imprint" is much broader by ordinary definition and connotes to "make or impress (a mark or design) on a surface." Webster's II New College Dictionary, 557 (1st ed. 1995). Defendant has referred to nothing in the plain language of the statute or its legislative history to warrant a more restrictive meaning or to preclude its application to the lettering at issue here. Indeed, that the officer's interpretation of the statute is correct is demonstrated by the passage in 1954 of a wholly separate legislative enactment requiring the words "Garden State" to be "imprinted" on New Jersey license plates. N.J.S.A. 39:3-33.2.
We conclude that the officer had an objectively reasonable basis to support his conclusion that defendant's car was being operated in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:33-3. As a result, his stop of the vehicle was lawful and defendant's ...