NJ court is right to curtail traffic stops – also known as ‘Driving while Black’ | Editorial

Posted Aug 09, 2021

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board

In 2016, 69 percent of all State Police stops for a license plate frame infraction in New Jersey were of Black or Latino drivers.

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Cops have long been able to stop almost anyone they want based on a pretext, dealership frames that cover just a fraction of your license plate – a technicality that’s resulted in more than 100,000 New Jerseyans being pulled over every year.

Because an infraction like this applies to so many drivers, it gives police an excuse to stop and search; and to racially profile.

The U.S. Supreme Court gave police broad latitude to pull people over on minor violations, but our state Supreme Court just took an important step last week to dial that back, ruling unanimously that this power has limits in New Jersey. The high court didn’t throw out our license plate statute completely, but did interpret it strictly. That will help reduce these stops, which can lead to disparate enforcement of minor violations against drivers based on race; what’s commonly known as “Driving while Black.”

Police have long insisted that using traffic violations to pull somebody over is a useful tool, a way to uncover drugs, guns or evidence of other crimes – even if it’s something as minor as a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from your rearview mirror. Some cite the infamous example of Timothy McVeigh, who got pulled over 90 minutes after his Oklahoma City bombing for driving a car without a license plate.

But we also have to set reasonable limits. Suppose we allowed police to search homes without warrants. That might help them catch criminals, granted, but it would also open the door to grand injustice and bias. Should we eliminate search warrants, too?

A good place to limit unchecked discretion is the “rinky-dink” traffic laws, as Alexander Shalom, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey put it. That’s where courts and Legislatures are increasingly pushing back.

In 2016, 69 percent of all State Police stops for this license plate frame infraction in New Jersey were of Black or Latino drivers, noted Joseph J. Russo, the deputy public defender who represented one of the men pulled over in this case. “They’re not pulling over the white, upper class individual driving a Mercedes Benz in Bernardsville,” he said.

A national study analyzing nearly 100 million traffic stops across the country is compelling: White drivers were 20 percent less likely to be stopped than Black drivers as a share of the population, it found. White drivers were also searched less often than Black drivers, but the whites were more likely to have drugs, guns or other contraband.

“Black drivers were less likely to be stopped after sunset, when a ‘veil of darkness’ masks one’s race, suggesting bias in stop decisions,” the team of researchers from Stanford University and New York University reported.

Now, based on this ruling, even if an officer makes a good faith mistake and misinterprets the relevant statute, the key issue in New Jersey is “whether a person’s rights have been violated,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in the opinion. If the cop doesn’t follow the letter of the law, the results of any search won’t be admissible in court.

And the high court interpreted this law more narrowly: If a registration letter or number is not legible, the plate is illegal; but if a phrase like “Garden State” is partly covered but still recognizable, there would be no violation.

The rest is up to the Legislature. This decision doesn’t fix another absurdity: Why should cops still be able to pull over an unwitting driver because some dealership gave him a frame that covers up the words “Garden State,” when other drivers are free to use specialty license plates with slogans like “Conquer cancer” or university logos, that don’t include the words “Garden State” at all?

Lawmakers also need to re-examine other minor traffic laws, like a strict one that says you can’t put anything on your car that might obstruct the driver’s vision, which cops could use to pull you over for an air freshener, or Puerto Rican flag. And the Attorney General’s Office must find ways to crack down on dealerships that give out illegal license plate frames to drivers.

This ruling will help reduce pretextual stops, but it won’t solve the underlying issue of DWBs. There’s more work to be done.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-08-10 03:23:44 -0700