July 02, 2022
Trenton police officers who stopped a car for a tinted window violation in 2018 had no justification to do so, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a decision celebrated by a social justice advocate as a rebuke of pretextual police stops.
State law forbids window tinting on the front windshield and front side windows of vehicles, as well as tinting that's not transparent. But it allows rear window tinting, so officers who pulled David L. Smith over in November 2018 for a purported tinted windows violation did so unconstitutionally, Justice Lee Solomon wrote for a unanimous court.
Officers said they saw Smith — through his Ford Taurus' rear, tinted window — make furtive, "shoving" motions that made them suspect he was hiding a gun, the ruling says. They searched the car, found a gun, and charged Smith with various weapons offenses, according to the ruling.
Jonathan Romberg, an associate professor with the Seton Hall Law School Center for Social Justice, filed a brief in the case.
"We're very pleased that the court read the statutes sensibly and narrowly so that police aren't given free rein to pull over virtually anyone and go on a fishing expedition," Romberg said. "When motor vehicle statutes are read broadly, it allows the police to intrude on constitutional rights, with a hugely disproportionate impact on communities of color."
Smith challenged his arrest, saying it was an unjustified stop. Trial and appellate courts denied his motion to suppress the handgun found in his car, and he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison, according to the ruling.
After the Supreme Court agreed to hear his appeal, prosecutors conceded officers lacked reasonable suspicion for the car stop and returned to court, where a judge vacated Smith's convictions and dismissed his charges.
The Supreme Court proceeded with the case anyway, Solomon wrote, because "the issue presented is of sufficient public importance, likely to surface again, to warrant our deciding it, even in the absence of an actual controversy between the litigants."
In its ruling, the court looked back to 1921, when New Jersey first passed a law banning windshield obstructions. Nothing in that law or in subsequent amendments and statutes on window glazing and tint specifications justifies police stopping a car with transparent, rear window tinting, Solomon said.
"In short, no statute supports the stop at issue," he wrote.
Smith's car stop was motivated "not by any concern about motor vehicle safety," Romberg said, "but by the fact that this was a group of officers who were looking to stumble on evidence of criminal activity."
Tuesday's ruling is especially important because pretextual stops are a continuing problem, he added.
"Many such stops arise from officers' implicit bias and their assumptions of what kind of people who may have arguable technical motor vehicle violations are likely to be engaged in other crime," Romberg said. "So even without consciously racist beliefs, there's a very significant danger of pretextual stops with disparate racial impact, unless motor vehicle statutes like these are read appropriately, narrowly, as the court did here."
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