October 10, 2017
appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose
opinion is reported at 445 N.J.Super. 358 (App. Div. 2016).
P. Rem, Jr., argued the cause for appellant (Rem Law Group,
attorneys; Joseph P. Rem, Jr., of counsel, and Tamra Katcher,
of counsel and on the brief).
Claudia Joy Demitro, Deputy Attorney General, argued the
cause for respondent (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney
General, attorney; Claudia Joy Demitro, of counsel and on the
brief, and Paula C. Jordao, Assistant Morris County
Prosecutor, on the brief).
Alexander R. Shalom argued the cause for amicus curiae
American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (Edward L.
Barocas, Legal Director, attorney; Alexander R. Shalom,
Edward L. Barocas and Jeanne M. LoCicero, on the brief).
C. Jordao, Assistant Prosecutor, submitted a letter brief on
behalf of respondent (Fredric M. Knapp, Morris County
LaVECCHIA, J., writing for the Court.
Court considers the constitutionality of an officer's
stop of a motor vehicle under the belief that the vehicle was
in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66 because one of
the vehicle's taillights was not operational.
Toyota Camry that appeared to have a malfunctioning taillight
passed Officer Carletta. Although the vehicle had four
taillights in total, two on each side, and although only one
light on the rear passenger side was not illuminated, Officer
Carletta believed that the vehicle was in violation of the
motor vehicle code. He executed a motor vehicle stop. Officer
Carletta asked the driver, defendant Ryan Sutherland, for his
driver's license, motor vehicle registration, and proof
of insurance. Officer Carletta returned to his vehicle to
check defendant's information. Upon confirming that
defendant's license was suspended, Officer Carletta
issued two summonses: driving with a suspended license, and
failure to maintain the vehicle's "lamps" in
violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-66. A Morris County Grand Jury
later indicted defendant and charged him with fourth-degree
operating a motor vehicle during a period of license
suspension for a second or subsequent
filed a motion to suppress the traffic stop and to dismiss
the indictment, arguing that the traffic stop constituted an
unreasonable seizure because his vehicle had three operable
taillights, in compliance with the requirements of N.J.S.A.
39:3-61(a) and -66. The State countered that the stop was
lawful because the malfunctioning taillight provided Officer
Carletta with reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle and
because the stop was lawful under the "community
caretaking" function by which police officers engage in
protecting public safety. Officer Carletta testified at the
hearing that he had stopped the vehicle both because he
believed that any malfunctioning taillight constituted a
violation of the statute and because he was engaging in
community caretaking by letting defendant know that his
vehicle was not in proper working order.
trial court granted defendant's motion to suppress
evidence resulting from the motor vehicle stop, but the court
denied his motion to dismiss the indictment. On the motor
vehicle stop, the trial court agreed with defendant that
Officer Carletta's understanding of the
maintenance-of-lamps statute had been "incorrect"
and that defendant had not violated the statute because he
had at least one functioning taillight on each side of the
vehicle. The court concluded that Officer Carletta's
erroneous interpretation of the law could not pass
Appellate Division granted leave to appeal and reversed the
trial court. 445 N.J.Super. 358 (2016). Relying extensively
on Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct.
530 (2014), the panel determined that "even if the
officer was mistaken that the inoperable tail light
constituted a Title 39 violation, he had an objectively
reasonable basis for stopping defendant's vehicle."
Id. at 360. In reaching that conclusion, the panel
questioned the continuing vitality of State v.
Puzio. which had held "that where an officer
mistakenly believes that driving conduct constitutes a
violation of the law, but in actuality it does not, no
objectively reasonable basis exists upon which to justify a
vehicle stop." 379 N.J.Super. 378, 383 (App. Div. 2005).
The panel went on to conclude that the statute at issue here
was ambiguous and that even if Officer Carletta's
interpretation of the statute was an objectively reasonable
mistake of law, the stop was permissible pursuant to
Heien. 445 N.J. Super, at 368-70. The panel's
reasoning made it unnecessary to reach the State's
argument about the applicability of the community caretaking
doctrine. Id. at 371.
Court granted defendant leave to appeal. 228 N.J. 246 (2016).
The Appellate Division erred in concluding that the holding
in Heien is applicable here. The motor vehicle
statutes pertinent here are not ambiguous. The officer's
stop of defendant's motor vehicle was not an objectively
reasonable mistake of law that gave rise to constitutional
reasonable suspicion; the stop was therefore
Under previous case law in this state, a police officer's
objectively reasonable mistake of fact does not render a
search or arrest unconstitutional. Consistent with federal
jurisprudence, the Court has held that Article I, Paragraph 7
of the New Jersey Constitution provides room for some
mistakes by police. However, that principle applies only when
the police behave reasonably, (pp. 10-11)
Until the Appellate Division decision in this case, the
jurisprudence of New Jersey appellate courts had not held
that reasonable mistakes of law would pass constitutional
muster. In fact, courts had reached the opposite conclusion.
See Puzio, 379 N.J. Super, at 382-83. The
Puzio decision noted "a clear distinction
between the present situation and those presented in cases
where the officer correctly understands the statute but
arguably misinterprets the facts concerning whether a
vehicle, or operator, has violated the statute."
Id. at 382. In explaining its reasoning, the panel
stated that "[i]f officers were permitted to stop
vehicles where it is objectively determined that there is no
legal basis for their action, 'the potential for abuse of
traffic infractions as pretext for effecting stops seems
boundless and the costs to privacy rights
excessive.'" Id. at 384. The panel also
viewed the creation of an exception for a mistake of law as
inconsistent with the exclusionary rule because "it
would remove the incentive for police to make certain that
they properly understand the law that they are entrusted to
enforce and obey." Ibid, (pp. 11-14)
Heien. the United States Supreme Court considered a
police officer's reasonable but erroneous interpretation
of a motor vehicle statute. Chief Justice Roberts's maj
ority opinion noted that "the ultimate touchstone of the
Fourth Amendment is 'reasonableness.'" 135 S.Ct.
at 536. After explaining that "[t]o be reasonable is not
to be perfect, " and that the Fourth Amendment allows
for reasonable mistakes of fact, the Chief Justice went on to
explain that the Fourth Amendment reasonableness inquiry
applies to mistakes of law just as it applies to mistakes of
fact. Ibid. Based on the language of the North
Carolina statute involved in Heien, Chief Justice
Roberts concluded that the officer's error of law was
reasonable and thus provided the officer with reasonable
suspicion to justify the traffic stop. Id. at 540.
Importantly, Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Ginsburg, wrote
a concurrence that has garnered support with states that have
chosen to follow the Heien approach in their own
search and seizure analyses. Critical to her agreement with
the majority was her belief that erroneous interpretations of
the law will pass Fourth Amendment scrutiny only when the law
at issue is '"so doubtful in construction' that
a reasonable judge could agree with the officer's
view." Id. at 541 (Kagan, J., concurring). Such
cases must necessarily involve a "really difficult"
or "very hard question of statutory interpretation"
and will thus be "exceedingly rare." Ibid,
number of states have subsequently adopted
Heien's holding. Importantly, however, a number
of states have either followed or acknowledged Justice
Kagan's narrow interpretation of an objectively
reasonable mistake of law. In State v. Scriven, 226
N.J. 20 (2016), the Court did not reach the question of
whether to adopt Heien. The officer's mistake of
law in that case was not objectively reasonable and thus did
not qualify as the type of "rare" case that
involves an objectively reasonable mistake of law. (pp.
Defendant's traffic stop was premised on perceived
violations of two statutes. The statutes read together
require that a motor vehicle only have two working rear
lamps, with at least one working lamp on each side. See N. J.
S. A. 39:3-61(a); N.J.S.A. 39:3-66. N.J.S.A. 39:3-66 mandates
that the lamps "required by this article" must be
kept in good working order. The statutes require one working
taillight on each side of a vehicle. Thus, if a vehicle has
two taillights on each side of the vehicle-more than the law
requires-and one of those multiple taillights on one side is
not working, a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66, as
was assumed and charged here, has not occurred. The
officer's erroneous application of the functioning
taillight requirement was not an objectively reasonable
mistake of law. This case does not present a basis for
considering the application of Heien. Simply put,
this was not a good stop. The judgment of the Appellate
Division, premised on an application of Heien to the
stop in this matter, is reversed, (pp. 19-23)
State also asserted community caretaking as an alternative
basis to support the stop. The Appellate Division did not
reach the argument in light of the manner in which it
resolved the case. Accordingly, a remand is appropriate to
allow the Appellate Division to address the unresolved
argument advanced by the State, (p. 23)
judgment of the Appellate Division is
REVERSED. The matter is
REMANDED to the Appellate Division for
further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA,
SOLOMON, AND TIMPONE join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA's opinion.
Court has acknowledged that a reasonable mistake of fact on
the part of a police officer will not render a search or
arrest predicated on that mistake unconstitutional. See
State v. Handy, 206 N.J. 39, 53-54 (2011). In this
matter, a police officer pulled over a car under the belief
that the vehicle was in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and
-66 because one of the vehicle's taillights was not
operational. The trial court determined that the officer was
mistaken about the law and granted defendant's motion to
suppress the fruits of the motor vehicle stop. The Appellate
Division reversed. The panel determined that the relevant
motor vehicle statutes were ambiguous and that, applying the
reasoning of the United States Supreme Court in Heien v.
North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 530 (2014), the
officer's stop of defendant's car constituted at most
an objectively reasonable mistake of law that should be
treated in the same manner as a mistake of fact. Accordingly,
the panel held that the officer's mistake of law did not
require suppression of the motor vehicle stop.
reverse. The Appellate Division erred in concluding that the
holding in Heien is applicable here. Because the
motor vehicle statutes pertinent here are not ambiguous, we
need not consider importing Heien into the
determination of this matter. Thus, we do not address the
arguments raised herein that He_i_en's mistake-of-law
analysis is not reconcilable with our state constitutional
jurisprudence. The officer's stop of defendant's
motor vehicle was not an objectively reasonable mistake of
law that gave rise to constitutional reasonable suspicion;
the stop was therefore unconstitutional. We remand to the
Appellate Division ...