8/2/2005New Jersey: Police Stops Must be Reasonable
A New Jersey Superior Court of appeals decision says traffic stops must be objectively reasonable.
The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court yesterday overturned a lower court ruling that would have allowed a police officer to stop motorists based upon a faulty interpretation of the law. Instead, the three-judge appeals panel concluded that, "We cannot countenance an officer's interference with personal liberty based upon an entirely erroneous understanding of the law."
The case began last May when Christopher Puzio was driving an Acura sports coupe with commercial license plates in Caldwell, New Jersey. A police officer noticed the plates and incorrectly assumed that state law required all commercial vehicles to have signs on the side displaying the company's name. Since Puzio had none, he pulled the car over. The officer next judged that Puzio was guilty of driving while intoxicated, even though Puzio's driving had shown no signs of impairment.
A lower court found Puzio guilty and sentenced him to a seven-month driving suspension, 12-48 hours in an DUI detention center (with $350 in fees), $300-$500 fine, $275 in penalties, and $1,000 a year in surcharges for three years, meaning he owed the state a total of approximately $4000.
The appeals court overturned this punishment, saying that it wasn't enough that the arresting officer was acting in good faith when he pulled Puzio over. The initial stop was not objectively reasonable, and therefore it was not valid.
"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," the three judge panel wrote. "If 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."
A copy of the decision is available below in 50k PDF format.