Newark, NJ- Recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that police cannot use the state’s high beam statute to conduct a traffic stop and search a vehicle unless the high beams would interfere with another vehicle. In State v. Al-Sharif Scriven, justices clarified when New Jersey’s high beam law could be used to stop a motorist.
In 2013, an Essex County police officer was standing outside of his patrol car, investigating an abandoned vehicle when another vehicle with the high beams on drove by him. According to the opinion, the car with the high beams on was the only one on the road was traveling in a “well-lit” area and obeyed other traffic laws, but the officer initiated a stop. He noted his intention was to explain why bright lights should be dimmed for oncoming vehicles.
The court noted in their opinion that the Essex County officer did not mention the high beams to the driver and instead asked for their insurance information, license, and registration. While talking to the driver, the officer smelled burnt marijuana and initiated a search of the car and its three occupants.
Al-Sharif Scriven, who was in the front passenger seat, was searched, and the officer found an illegal handgun, bullets, and a high-capacity magazine. He was charged with several counts including unlawful possession of a firearm and faced jail time, but he challenged the arresting officer’s probable cause and moved to suppress any evidence obtained from the stop.
During adjudication, Scriven filed a motion to have the evidence obtained during the stop suppressed because he said the search was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, and his rights under Article 1, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. Both of those laws protect citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. A trial court, the Appellate Division, and the NJ Supreme Court all agreed and suppressed the evidence.
Writing for the court, NJ Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin noted the language of the high-beam statute (N.J.S.A. 39:3-60) states that a motorist is only required to dim their high beams if they are approached by an oncoming vehicle. The state argued that since the officer’s patrol car was parked perpendicular to the street where he conducted the stop, it was not considered an oncoming vehicle. Justices rejected that argument and the state’s assertion that the arresting officer was just acting in the interest of community safety when he stopped the motorist to explain the dangers of driving with the high beams.
Justices concluded the officer “did not have a reasonable, articulable, and particularized suspicion for making the stop under the Federal or State Constitution.” Justices also clarified state law only says a motorist must dim their lights if they approach an oncoming vehicle.
Your rights against unreasonable searches and seizures are crucial components of the American justice system, but this case shows that your rights can be violated. If you are facing a criminal charge in Newark, Jersey City or Elizabeth, you need someone to examine the facts of your case and ensure your rights have not ignored or violated. Contact my office in Newark at 973-453-2009 and we can discuss the charges you are facing and what defense strategy will minimize the potential consequences.