Law enforcement frequently utilize N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 as probable cause for a motor vehicle stop when a driver has a license plate cover or frame which covers any information on the plate, including the words “Garden State.” The specific portion of the statute reads:
“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.”
Our Appellate Division recently ruled on a case involving this very issue, State v Roman-Rosado, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2020) (Docket No.: A-3703-17T4) . Defendant was stopped for allegedly violating N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 because his license plate frame on the car's rear license plate "conceal[ed] or otherwise obscure[d]" the words "Garden State" at the bottom of the license plate. Based upon the common understanding of the words "conceal" and "obscure," the Appellate Division concluded there was no reasonable suspicion to stop defendant's car for violating N.J.S.A. 39:3-33 where the minimal covering of "Garden State" did not make the words indecipherable. This was of particular importance to the defendant because a firearm was found after the motor vehicle stop and he was charged with a second degree offense, which carries a minimum five year state prison sentence and a presumption of incarceration. Because the stop was not justifiable, the gun was suppressed and the conviction was overturned.
So, the answer to whether you can be stopped for a license plate cover or frame is…maybe. Prior to this opinion, it was generally accepted by defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges that any covering of the wording on a license plate gave rise to a justifiable motor vehicle stop. Now, the analysis appears to be fact sensitive and this case opens the door for a defense. This is not only important as a defense to the charge itself, but more so as a defense to possessing any contraband that is found in the vehicle as a result of the stop.
If you or someone you know is charged with a criminal, traffic or any other type of offense, free to call or text me at (732) 558-2019, email me at email@example.com or call the office at (732) 750-4600 to set up an appointment.