New Jersey v. Sutherland

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Justia Opinion Summary

In this matter, a police officer pulled over a car under the belief that the vehicle was in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66 because one of the vehicle’s taillights was not working. The trial court determined that the officer was mistaken about the law and granted defendant’s motion to suppress the fruits of the motor vehicle stop. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the relevant motor vehicle statutes were ambiguous and that, applying the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court in Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___ (2014), the officer’s stop of defendant’s car constituted at most an objectively reasonable mistake of law that should be treated in the same manner as a mistake of fact. Accordingly, the panel held that the officer’s mistake of law did not require suppression of the motor vehicle stop. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed: the Appellate Division erred in concluding that the holding in "Heien" was applicable here. Because the motor vehicle statutes pertinent here were not ambiguous, the Court did not consider the issue in light of Heien. "The officer’s stop of defendant’s motor vehicle was not an objectively reasonable mistake of law that gave rise to constitutional reasonable suspicion; the stop was therefore unconstitutional."

SYLLABUS

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the
convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the
interest of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized.)

                                   State v. Ryan Sutherland (A-14-16) (077807)

Argued October 10, 2017 -- Decided January 11, 2018

LaVECCHIA, J., writing for the Court.

         The Court considers the constitutionality of an officer’s stop of a motor vehicle under the belief that the
vehicle was in violation of 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66 because one of the vehicle’s taillights was not operational.

         A Toyota Camry that appeared to have a malfunctioning taillight passed Officer Carletta. Although the
vehicle had four taillights in total, two on each side, and although only one light on the rear passenger side was not
illuminated, Officer Carletta believed that the vehicle was in violation of the motor vehicle code. He executed a
motor vehicle stop. Officer Carletta asked the driver, defendant Ryan Sutherland, for his driver’s license, motor
vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. Officer Carletta returned to his vehicle to check defendant’s
information. Upon confirming that defendant’s license was suspended, Officer Carletta issued two summonses:
driving with a suspended license, and failure to maintain the vehicle’s “lamps” in violation of 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-66. A
Morris County Grand Jury later indicted defendant and charged him with fourth-degree operating a motor vehicle
during a period of license suspension for a second or subsequent driving-while-intoxicated conviction.

          Defendant filed a motion to suppress the traffic stop and to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the traffic
stop constituted an unreasonable seizure because his vehicle had three operable taillights, in compliance with the
requirements of 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66. The State countered that the stop was lawful because the
malfunctioning taillight provided Officer Carletta with reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle and because the stop
was lawful under the “community caretaking” function by which police officers engage in protecting public safety.
Officer Carletta testified at the hearing that he had stopped the vehicle both because he believed that any
malfunctioning taillight constituted a violation of the statute and because he was engaging in community caretaking
by letting defendant know that his vehicle was not in proper working order.

         The trial court granted defendant’s motion to suppress evidence resulting from the motor vehicle stop, but
the court denied his motion to dismiss the indictment. On the motor vehicle stop, the trial court agreed with
defendant that Officer Carletta’s understanding of the maintenance-of-lamps statute had been “incorrect” and that
defendant had not violated the statute because he had at least one functioning taillight on each side of the vehicle.
The court concluded that Officer Carletta’s erroneous interpretation of the law could not pass constitutional scrutiny.

          The Appellate Division granted leave to appeal and reversed the trial court. 
445 N.J. Super. 358 (2016).
Relying extensively on Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___, 
135 S. Ct. 530 (2014), the panel determined that
“even if the officer was mistaken that the inoperable tail light constituted a Title 39 violation, he had an objectively
reasonable basis for stopping defendant’s vehicle.” Id. at 360. In reaching that conclusion, the panel questioned the
continuing vitality of State v. Puzio, which had held “that 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.” 
379 N.J. Super. 378, 383 (App. Div. 2005). The panel went on to conclude that the statute at
issue here was ambiguous and that even if Officer Carletta’s interpretation of the statute was an objectively
reasonable mistake of law, the stop was permissible pursuant to Heien. 
445 N.J. Super. at 368–70. The panel’s
reasoning made it unnecessary to reach the State’s argument about the applicability of the community caretaking
doctrine. Id. at 371.

         The Court granted defendant leave to appeal. 
228 N.J. 246 (2016).

HELD: The Appellate Division erred in concluding that the holding in Heien is applicable here. The motor vehicle
statutes pertinent here are not ambiguous. The officer’s stop of defendant’s motor vehicle was not an objectively
reasonable mistake of law that gave rise to constitutional reasonable suspicion; the stop was therefore unconstitutional.

                                                           1
1. Under previous case law in this state, a police officer’s objectively reasonable mistake of fact does not render a
search or arrest unconstitutional. Consistent with federal jurisprudence, the Court has held that Article I, Paragraph
7 of the New Jersey Constitution provides room for some mistakes by police. However, that principle applies only
when the police behave reasonably. (pp. 10-11)

2. Until the Appellate Division decision in this case, the jurisprudence of New Jersey appellate courts had not held
that reasonable mistakes of law would pass constitutional muster. In fact, courts had reached the opposite
conclusion. See Puzio, 
379 N.J. Super. at 382-83. The Puzio decision noted “a clear distinction between the present
situation and those presented in cases where the officer correctly understands the statute but arguably misinterprets
the facts concerning whether a vehicle, or operator, has violated the statute.” Id. at 382. In explaining its reasoning,
the panel stated that “[i]f 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 and the costs to privacy rights excessive.’” Id. at 384. The panel also viewed the creation of an exception
for a mistake of law as inconsistent with the exclusionary rule because “it would remove the incentive for police to
make certain that they properly understand the law that they are entrusted to enforce and obey.” Ibid. (pp. 11-14)

3. In Heien, the United States Supreme Court considered a police officer’s reasonable but erroneous interpretation
of a motor vehicle statute. Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion noted that “the ultimate touchstone of the
Fourth Amendment is 'reasonableness.’” 
135 S. Ct.  at 536. After explaining that “[t]o be reasonable is not to be
perfect,” and that the Fourth Amendment allows for reasonable mistakes of fact, the Chief Justice went on to explain
that the Fourth Amendment reasonableness inquiry applies to mistakes of law just as it applies to mistakes of fact.
Ibid. Based on the language of the North Carolina statute involved in Heien, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that
the officer’s error of law was reasonable and thus provided the officer with reasonable suspicion to justify the traffic
stop. Id. at 540. Importantly, Justice Kagan, joined by Justice Ginsburg, wrote a concurrence that has garnered
support with states that have chosen to follow the Heien approach in their own search and seizure analyses. Critical
to her agreement with the majority was her belief that erroneous interpretations of the law will pass Fourth
Amendment scrutiny only when the law at issue is “'so doubtful in construction’ that a reasonable judge could agree
with the officer’s view.” Id. at 541 (Kagan, J., concurring). Such cases must necessarily involve a “really difficult”
or “very hard question of statutory interpretation” and will thus be “exceedingly rare.” Ibid. (pp. 14-16)

4. A number of states have subsequently adopted Heien’s holding. Importantly, however, a number of states have
either followed or acknowledged Justice Kagan’s narrow interpretation of an objectively reasonable mistake of law.
In State v. Scriven, 
226 N.J. 20 (2016), the Court did not reach the question of whether to adopt Heien. The
officer’s mistake of law in that case was not objectively reasonable and thus did not qualify as the type of “rare”
case that involves an objectively reasonable mistake of law. (pp. 17-19)

5. Defendant’s traffic stop was premised on perceived violations of two statutes. The statutes read together require
that a motor vehicle only have two working rear lamps, with at least one working lamp on each side. See 
N.J.S.A.
39:3-61(a); 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-66. 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-66 mandates that the lamps “required by this article” must be kept in
good working order. The statutes require one working taillight on each side of a vehicle. Thus, if a vehicle has two
taillights on each side of the vehicle—more than the law requires—and one of those multiple taillights on one side is
not working, a violation of 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66, as was assumed and charged here, has not occurred. The
officer’s erroneous application of the functioning taillight requirement was not an objectively reasonable mistake of
law. This case does not present a basis for considering the application of Heien. Simply put, this was not a good
stop. The judgment of the Appellate Division, premised on an application of Heien to the stop in this matter, is
reversed. (pp. 19-23)

6. The State also asserted community caretaking as an alternative basis to support the stop. The Appellate Division
did not reach the argument in light of the manner in which it resolved the case. Accordingly, a remand is
appropriate to allow the Appellate Division to address the unresolved argument advanced by the State. (p. 23)

         The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED. The matter is REMANDED to the Appellate
Division for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES ALBIN, PATTERSON, FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, AND
TIMPONE join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA’s opinion.



                                                           2
                                     SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY
                                       A-
14 September Term 2016
                                                077807

STATE OF NEW JERSEY,

    Plaintiff-Respondent,

         v.

RYAN SUTHERLAND,

    Defendant-Appellant.


         Argued October 10, 2017 – Decided January 11, 2018

         On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate
         Division, whose opinion is reported at 445
         N.J. Super. 358 (App. Div. 2016).

         Joseph P. Rem, Jr., argued the cause for
         appellant (Rem Law Group, attorneys; Joseph
         P. Rem, Jr., of counsel, and Tamra Katcher,
         of counsel and on the brief).

         Claudia Joy Demitro, Deputy Attorney
         General, argued the cause for respondent
         (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General,
         attorney; Claudia Joy Demitro, of counsel
         and on the brief, and Paula C. Jordao,
         Assistant Morris County Prosecutor, on the
         brief).

         Alexander R. Shalom argued the cause for
         amicus curiae American Civil Liberties Union
         of New Jersey (Edward L. Barocas, Legal
         Director, attorney; Alexander R. Shalom,
         Edward L. Barocas and Jeanne M. LoCicero, on
         the brief).

         Paula C. Jordao, Assistant Prosecutor,
         submitted a letter brief on behalf of
         respondent (Fredric M. Knapp, Morris County
         Prosecutor, attorney).



                               1
    JUSTICE LaVECCHIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

    This Court has acknowledged that a reasonable mistake of

fact on the part of a police officer will not render a search or

arrest predicated on that mistake unconstitutional.     See State

v. Handy, 
206 N.J. 39, 53-54 (2011).   In this matter, a police

officer pulled over a car under the belief that the vehicle was

in violation of 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66 because one of the

vehicle’s taillights was not operational.   The trial court

determined that the officer was mistaken about the law and

granted defendant’s motion to suppress the fruits of the motor

vehicle stop.   The Appellate Division reversed.   The panel

determined that the relevant motor vehicle statutes were

ambiguous and that, applying the reasoning of the United States

Supreme Court in Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___, 
135 S. Ct. 530 (2014), the officer’s stop of defendant’s car

constituted at most an objectively reasonable mistake of law

that should be treated in the same manner as a mistake of fact.

Accordingly, the panel held that the officer’s mistake of law

did not require suppression of the motor vehicle stop.

    We now reverse.   The Appellate Division erred in concluding

that the holding in Heien is applicable here.   Because the motor

vehicle statutes pertinent here are not ambiguous, we need not

consider importing Heien into the determination of this matter.


                                 2
Thus, we do not address the arguments raised herein that Heien’s

mistake-of-law analysis is not reconcilable with our state

constitutional jurisprudence.     The officer’s stop of defendant’s

motor vehicle was not an objectively reasonable mistake of law

that gave rise to constitutional reasonable suspicion; the stop

was therefore unconstitutional.     We remand to the Appellate

Division for its consideration of the State’s alternative

argument, which the panel did not reach, that the stop should be

sustained based on the community caretaking doctrine.

                                  I.

                                  A.

    At the suppression hearing in this matter, the following

facts were adduced.     Officer Michael Carletta of the Mount Olive

Police Department was the sole witness.

    At about 9:00 p.m. on the evening of February 3, 2014,

Officer Carletta was on motor vehicle patrol traveling

southbound on Route 206.     A Toyota Camry passed him traveling

northbound.     Looking in his rearview mirror, the officer

observed that the northbound vehicle appeared to have a

malfunctioning taillight.     Although the vehicle had four

taillights in total, two on each side, and although only one

light on the rear passenger side was not illuminated, Officer

Carletta believed that the vehicle was in violation of the motor

vehicle code.    He made a U-turn and began to follow the vehicle.

                                   3
After confirming that one of the vehicle’s taillights was not

illuminated, he executed a motor vehicle stop.     Officer Carletta

testified that, in such situations, it is typical police

practice to give the driver a warning rather than a summons.

    After stopping and approaching the vehicle, Officer

Carletta asked the driver, defendant Ryan Sutherland, for his

driver’s license, motor vehicle registration, and proof of

insurance.   Defendant initially stated that he did not have his

driver’s license with him but then quickly admitted that he did

not have a valid driver’s license.     After obtaining defendant’s

name and date of birth, Officer Carletta returned to his vehicle

to check defendant’s information with police dispatch.

    Upon confirming that defendant’s license was in fact

suspended, Officer Carletta issued defendant two summonses:

driving with a suspended license in violation of 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-

40, and failure to maintain the vehicle’s “lamps” in violation

of 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-66.   Officer Carletta explained to defendant

that he had been stopped because one of his taillights was not

working and that he could no longer drive the vehicle because he

had a suspended driver’s license.      The officer allowed defendant

to leave the scene on the condition that his passenger drive the

car to its intended destination.

                                B.



                                   4
     On June 2, 2014, defendant was charged in municipal court

with fourth-degree operating a motor vehicle during a period of

license suspension in violation of 
N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26.       A Morris

County Grand Jury later indicted defendant and charged him with

fourth-degree operating a motor vehicle during a period of

license suspension for a second or subsequent driving-while-

intoxicated conviction in violation of 
N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26(b).

     Defendant filed a motion to suppress the traffic stop and

to dismiss the indictment,1 arguing that the traffic stop

constituted an unreasonable seizure because his vehicle had

three operable taillights, in compliance with the requirements

of 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66.       The State countered that the

stop was lawful because the malfunctioning taillight provided

Officer Carletta with reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle

and because the stop was lawful under the “community caretaking”

function by which police officers engage in protecting public

safety.   Officer Carletta testified at the hearing that he had

stopped the vehicle both because he believed that any

malfunctioning taillight constituted a violation of the statute




1  The Appellate Division opinion treats defendant as having
filed two separate motions: a motion to suppress the stop and a
motion to dismiss the indictment. However, it appears from the
record that defendant filed one motion to dismiss the indictment
for two discrete reasons: (1) because the charge resulted from
an unconstitutional stop; and (2) because the prosecutor gave
improper instructions to the grand jury.
                                  5
and because he was engaging in community caretaking by letting

defendant know that his vehicle was not in proper working order.

    The trial court granted defendant’s motion to suppress

evidence resulting from the motor vehicle stop, but the court

denied his motion to dismiss the indictment on the grounds of

faulty instructions provided to the grand jury.   On the motor

vehicle stop, the trial court agreed with defendant that Officer

Carletta’s understanding of the maintenance-of-lamps statute had

been “incorrect” and that defendant had not violated the statute

because he had at least one functioning taillight on each side

of the vehicle.   Relying heavily on State v. Puzio, 
379 N.J.

Super. 378 (App. Div. 2005), as well as an unpublished 2009

Appellate Division decision, the trial court concluded that

Officer Carletta’s erroneous interpretation of the law -- even

though it was a “common sense” and “practical” approach to

interpreting the statute -- could not pass constitutional

scrutiny.

    The State sought leave to appeal on the grounds that

(1) Officer Carletta had reasonable suspicion to conduct a

traffic stop; (2) Puzio’s continuing vitality was put into

question by the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Heien,

in which the Supreme Court held that objectively reasonable

mistakes of law can provide the reasonable suspicion necessary

for a constitutional stop; and (3) the stop was lawful under the

                                 6
community caretaking doctrine.   The Appellate Division granted

leave to appeal and reversed the trial court in a published

opinion.   State v. Sutherland, 
445 N.J. Super. 358 (2016).

     Relying extensively on Heien, the panel determined that

“even if the officer was mistaken that the inoperable tail light

constituted a Title 39 violation, he had an objectively

reasonable basis for stopping defendant’s vehicle.”    Id. at 360.

In reaching that conclusion, the panel questioned the continuing

vitality of Puzio, which had held “that 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.”

Puzio, 
379 N.J. Super. at 383 (collecting cases).2    The panel

reasoned that Puzio had been decided before Heien and that

Heien’s “well-reasoned” holding had cast doubt on Puzio’s

continuing validity.   Sutherland, 
445 N.J. Super. at 366-67.

The panel went on to conclude that the statute at issue here was

ambiguous and that even if Officer Carletta’s interpretation of

the statute was an objectively reasonable mistake of law, the

stop was permissible pursuant to Heien “[b]ecause the Fourth

Amendment tolerates objectively reasonable mistakes of law.”


2  The panel below also disagreed with the holding in the
unpublished decision referenced by the trial court, which, the
panel noted, is unpublished and thus does not constitute
precedential authority. Sutherland, 
445 N.J. Super. at 365.
                                 
7 Id. at 368–70.   The panel’s reasoning made it unnecessary to

reach the State’s argument about the applicability of the

community caretaking doctrine.    Id. at 371.

    Defendant sought leave to appeal from this Court, which we

granted.   
228 N.J. 246 (2016).   We also granted the motion of

the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) to

appear as amicus curiae.

                                  II.

    The parties’ arguments are largely those advanced in the

proceedings before the trial and appellate courts.

    Defendant argues that the Appellate Division’s adoption of

Heien is at odds with prior New Jersey precedent, which has

traditionally provided greater protections under our state

analogue to the Fourth Amendment than those provided by the

Federal Constitution.   Specifically, he argues that Puzio, 
379 N.J. Super. at 383, correctly held that a traffic stop based on

an incorrect interpretation of law can never be objectively

reasonable.   That holding, defendant argues, is a natural

extension of this Court’s decision in State v. Novembrino, 
105 N.J. 95 (1987), which held that our State Constitution does not

contemplate good faith mistakes by law enforcement as an

exception to the exclusionary rule.     Defendant also contends

that the statutory provisions at issue here were plain and

unambiguous and did not apply to his vehicle, undermining any

                                  8
basis for reasonable suspicion.   In essence, defendant’s

argument challenges Officer Carletta’s interpretation of those

provisions as not reasonable.

    The State argues that the Appellate Division correctly held

that Officer Carletta’s belief that defendant was in violation

of the motor vehicle code was objectively reasonable and

provided him with reasonable suspicion to stop defendant’s

vehicle.   Relying on Heien, the State posits that just as we

have held that reasonable mistakes of fact can pass

constitutional scrutiny, so too should we hold that reasonable

mistakes of law do not run afoul of our constitution.   Such a

result is not inconsistent with Puzio, the State argues, because

Puzio involved an objectively unreasonable mistake of law,

whereas here, Officer Carletta was forced to interpret a

confusing and outdated set of statutes ambiguous enough to be

open to differing and equally reasonable interpretations.

Additionally, the State maintains that it preserved its argument

that Officer Carletta had lawful authority to stop defendant’s

vehicle based on the community caretaking doctrine, which

provides police with the power to ensure the safety and welfare

of the public independent of their law enforcement objectives.

    Amicus curiae ACLU-NJ argues that the statutes at issue

here are not ambiguous and that the rule of lenity requires

strict construction of those statutes in defendant’s favor.

                                  9
ACLU-NJ further argues that a stop based on a police officer’s

misunderstanding or ignorance of the law can and should be

differentiated from mistakes of fact, and that such ignorance or

misunderstanding of the law must always be unreasonable and thus

unconstitutional under our Article I, Paragraph 7 jurisprudence.

Like defendant, ACLU-NJ maintains that that conclusion flows

naturally from state constitutional case law, most specifically

from Novembrino.   Heien, the ACLU-NJ argues, is inconsistent

with that jurisprudence and thus should not be adopted by this

Court.

                               III.

                                A.

    Under previous case law in this state, a police officer’s

objectively reasonable mistake of fact does not render a search

or arrest unconstitutional.   Consistent with federal

jurisprudence, we have held that Article I, Paragraph 7 of the

New Jersey Constitution provides “room . . . for some mistakes

[by police].”   Handy, 
206 N.J. at 54 (second alteration in

original) (quoting Illinois v. Rodriguez, 
497 U.S. 177, 186

(1980)).   However, that principle applies only when “the police

. . . behave[] reasonably.”   Ibid.; see also State v. Green, 
318 N.J. Super. 346, 352-53 (App. Div. 1999) (holding reasonable but

mistaken belief leading to arrest did not warrant suppression).



                                10
    In Handy, a police dispatcher, erroneously relying on a

record of a warrant containing a name and date of birth that did

not match the defendant’s reported information, advised a police

officer to execute that warrant without taking necessary steps

to clarify discrepancies.     
206 N.J. at 41-42.   Our Court

concluded that the dispatcher’s conduct was not objectively

reasonable.   Id. at 54.   Therefore, we determined that the

arrest violated the defendant’s federal and state constitutional

rights, and we suppressed the evidence found during the search

incident to the arrest.    Id. at 42.

    The facts in Handy led us to a different conclusion than

the mistake of fact in State v. Green, in which the error was

determined to be objectively reasonable.     In Green, which we

cited approvingly in Handy, the Appellate Division upheld an

arrest and search of defendant Green, where Green closely

matched the description of another man named Lovett -- for whom

the warrant was issued -- and where the police encountered Green

outside Lovett’s residence.    Green, 
318 N.J. Super. at 352-53.

In those circumstances the Appellate Division rightly concluded

that the arrest was premised on an objectively reasonable

mistake of fact and was thus lawful.     Ibid.

    Until the Appellate Division decision in this case, the

jurisprudence of our state appellate courts had not held that

reasonable mistakes of law would pass constitutional muster.      In

                                  11
fact, courts had reached the opposite conclusion.         See Puzio,


379 N.J. Super. at 382-83.

    In Puzio, an officer stopped a moving vehicle with

commercial license plates, believing the driver was operating it

in violation of 
N.J.S.A. 39:4-46(a) because the vehicle had no

placard on the right side of the vehicle displaying the name and

address of its business.    Id. at 380.     The Appellate Division

determined as a matter of law that the stop was in error because

the statute relied on by the officer plainly excluded “passenger

vehicles,” like the one driven by the defendant, from the

“placard” requirement.     Id. at 382-84.

    Importantly, the Puzio decision noted “a clear distinction

between the present situation and those presented in cases where

the officer correctly understands the statute but arguably

misinterprets the facts concerning whether a vehicle, or

operator, has violated the statute.”        Id. at 382.   In explaining

its reasoning, the panel stated that “[i]f 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 and the costs to privacy rights excessive.’”

Id. at 384 (quoting United States v. Lopez-Valdez, 
178 F.3d 282,

289 (5th Cir. 1999)).    The panel also viewed the creation of an

exception for a mistake of law as inconsistent with the

                                  12
exclusionary rule because “it would remove the incentive for

police to make certain that they properly understand the law

that they are entrusted to enforce and obey.”     Ibid. (quoting

United States v. Lopez-Soto, 
205 F.3d 1101, 1106 (9th Cir.

2000)).

    Another mistake-of-fact case -- the State’s assertions to

the contrary notwithstanding -- is State v. Williamson, 
138 N.J.
 302 (1994).   Williamson dealt with a police officer’s reasonable

suspicion that a motorist had “affected traffic” so as to be in

violation of the motor vehicle code by failing to use a turn

signal.    Id. at 303–04.   The officer was required to make a

judgment that involved interpreting facts, namely whether the

motorist had actually affected traffic; there was no mistake

about what the law meant.    See id. at 304.   We held that “the

State need prove only that the police lawfully stopped the car,

not that it could convict the driver of the motor-vehicle

offense.”   Ibid.   At its core, Williamson involved a factual

dispute:    whether the officer could have an objectively

reasonable belief, even if mistaken, that the defendant’s

driving behavior “affected traffic,” to justify the stop.        See

also State v. Locurto, 
157 N.J. 463, 470 (1999) (noting that

State is not required to prove that motor vehicle violation

occurred in order to meet standard of reasonable suspicion).



                                  13
    Thus, at the time of the Appellate Division’s decision

here, neither this Court nor the Appellate Division had

authorized reliance on a reasonable but mistaken understanding

of the law to support a search or arrest.    In the appellate

judgment under review, the panel relied on, as persuasive, the

intervening decision of the United States Supreme Court in Heien

to support its holding.   We turn therefore to that decision in

setting forth the background to this appeal.

                                 B.

    In Heien, the United States Supreme Court considered a

police officer’s reasonable but erroneous interpretation of a

motor vehicle statute.    In that case, a North Carolina Sheriff’s

Officer observed a vehicle traveling along the highway with a

malfunctioning brake light.   Heien, 
135 S. Ct.  at 534.

Believing the faulty brake light to be in violation of the

state’s motor vehicle code, the officer executed a traffic stop.

Ibid.   During the stop, the officer received permission to

search the vehicle and discovered illegal drugs in a duffel bag.

Ibid.

    The defendant sought to suppress the evidence uncovered

during the search, contending that the stop had violated his

rights under the Fourth Amendment.    Id. at 535.   The trial court

denied the suppression motion, but the North Carolina Court of

Appeals reversed, holding that the initial stop was invalid

                                 14
“because driving with only one working brake light was not

actually a violation of North Carolina law.”    Ibid.   The State

appealed, and the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed, holding

that the officer’s interpretation of the motor vehicle code --

even if incorrect -- was not unreasonable and thus not a

violation of the Fourth Amendment.   Ibid.

    The Supreme Court granted certiorari.    Chief Justice

Roberts’s majority opinion noted that “the ultimate touchstone

of the Fourth Amendment is 'reasonableness.’”   Id. at 536

(quoting Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ___, 
134 S. Ct. 2473,

2482 (2014)).   After explaining that “[t]o be reasonable is not

to be perfect,” and that the Fourth Amendment allows for

reasonable mistakes of fact, the Chief Justice went on to

explain that the Fourth Amendment reasonableness inquiry applies

to mistakes of law just as it applies to mistakes of fact:

         [R]easonable men make mistakes of law, too,
         and such mistakes are no less compatible with
         the concept of reasonable suspicion [than
         mistakes of fact].      Reasonable suspicion
         arises from the combination of an officer’s
         understanding   of   the    facts   and   his
         understanding of the relevant law.        The
         officer may be reasonably mistaken on either
         ground. Whether the facts turn out to be not
         what was thought, or the law turns out to be
         not what was thought, the result is the same:
         the facts are outside the scope of the law.
         There is no reason, under the text of the
         Fourth Amendment or our precedents, why this
         same result should be acceptable when reached
         by way of a reasonable mistake of fact, but


                                15
           not when reached by way       of   a   similarly
           reasonable mistake of law.

           [Ibid.]

    Based on the language of the North Carolina statute

involved in Heien, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that the

officer’s error of law was reasonable and thus provided the

officer with reasonable suspicion to justify the traffic stop.

Id. at 540.   Importantly, Justice Kagan, joined by Justice

Ginsburg, wrote a concurrence that has garnered support with

states that have chosen to follow the Heien approach in their

own search and seizure analyses.

    Justice Kagan’s concurrence contained several important

caveats.   Critical to her agreement with the majority was her

belief that erroneous interpretations of the law will pass

Fourth Amendment scrutiny only when the law at issue is “'so

doubtful in construction’ that a reasonable judge could agree

with the officer’s view.”   Id. at 541 (Kagan, J., concurring)

(quoting The Friendship, 
9 F. Cas. 825, 826 (No. 5,125) (C.C.D.

Mass. 1812)).   Thus, “[i]f the statute is genuinely ambiguous,

such that overturning the officer’s judgment requires hard

interpretive work, then the officer has made a reasonable

mistake.   But if not, not.”   Ibid.   Such cases must necessarily

involve a “really difficult” or “very hard question of statutory

interpretation” and will thus be “exceedingly rare.”      Ibid.


                                 16
     A number of states have subsequently adopted Heien’s

holding.   See, e.g., Sevilla-Carcamo v. State, 
783 S.E.2d 150,

153 n.12 (Ga. Ct. App. 2016) (dicta); Williams v. State, 
28 N.E.3d 293, 294-95 (Ind. Ct. App. 2015); People v. Guthrie, 
30 N.E.3d 880, 886-88 (N.Y. 2015); State v. Hirschkorn, 
881 N.W.2d 244, 248-49 (N.D. 2016); State v. Lerma, 
884 N.W.2d 749, 750-53

(S.D. 2016).   However, some of those states had already

developed a jurisprudence prior to Heien allowing for reasonable

mistakes of law on the part of police officers.   See, e.g.,

Sevilla-Carcamo, 
758 S.E 2d at 153 n.12 (noting that Heien is in

accord with established Georgia case law); State v. Wright, 
791 N.W.2d 791, 796-99 (S.D. 2010) (suggesting that objectively

reasonable mistake of law can provide basis for constitutional

traffic stop).3

     Importantly, however, a number of states have either

followed or acknowledged Justice Kagan’s narrow interpretation

of an objectively reasonable mistake of law when deciding

similar issues under the rubric of Heien’s analysis.   See State


3  Some states have changed their views entirely in light of
Heien. Compare Williams, 
28 N.E 3d at 293-95 (Indiana Court of
Appeals reversing on rehearing and following Heien’s holding
that reasonable mistakes of law can provide reasonable suspicion
for traffic stop), with Gunn v. State, 
956 N.E.2d 136, 141 (Ind.
Ct. App. 2011) (noting party’s acknowledgement of “Indiana
decisions determining that an officer’s mistake of law can never
be reasonable”); see also Guthrie, 
30 N.E 3d at 885 (noting
prior appellate precedent in New York that “mistake of law
cannot justify a traffic stop”).
                                17
v. Stoll, 
370 P.3d 1130, 1134 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2016) (citing

Justice Kagan’s concurrence for proposition that statute must be

“genuinely ambiguous” and require “hard interpretive work” to

find that officer has made reasonable mistake); People v.

Gaytan, 
32 N.E.3d 641, 652 (Ill. 2015) (same); State v.

Eldridge, 
790 S.E.2d 740, 743-44 (N.C. Ct. App. 2016) (same);

State v. Hurley, 
117 A.3d 433, 441 (Vt. 2015) (noting Justice

Kagan’s indication that “the bar is high in cases in which a

stop is predicated on a mistake of law”); State v. Houghton, 
868 N.W.2d 143, 158-60 (Wis. 2015) (noting Justice Kagan’s view that

objectively reasonable mistakes of law will be “exceedingly

rare”); see also State v. Dopslaf, 
356 P.3d 559, 563-64 (N.M.

Ct. App. 2015) (citing Justice Kagan’s concurrence as support

for proposition that police officer’s potential mistake of law

was reasonable).

    In this state, we have had only one prior occasion to

consider Heien; that opportunity presented itself in State v.

Scriven, 
226 N.J. 20 (2016).   However, we ultimately did not

reach the question of whether to adopt Heien and find that an

objectively reasonable mistake of law could support reasonable

suspicion for a constitutional police stop.   Id. at 36.

Instead, we held that the officer’s mistake of law in that case

was not objectively reasonable, see ibid., and thus did not



                                18
qualify as the type of “rare” case that involves an objectively

reasonable mistake of law.

    With that background in mind, we turn to the motor vehicle

statutes that, the State contends, give rise to an objectively

reasonable mistake of law in this matter.

                               IV.

    Defendant’s traffic stop was premised on perceived

violations of two statutes.

    
N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a), relating to the types of “lamps and

reflectors” required on certain motor vehicles, provides in

relevant part:

         Every motor vehicle other than a motor cycle
         and other than a motor-drawn vehicle shall be
         equipped on the front with at least two
         headlamps, an equal number at each side, and
         with two turn signals, one on each side; and
         on the rear with two tail lamps, two or more
         stop lamps, as prescribed by section 2 of L.
         2013, c. 230 ([
N.J.S.A.] 39:3-66.3), two turn
         signals, and two reflectors, one of each at
         each side; except that a passenger vehicle
         manufactured   before  July   2,  1954,   and
         registered in this State may be equipped with
         one stop lamp, one reflector, and one tail
         lamp and is not required to be equipped with
         turn signals.

         [(emphasis added).]


N.J.S.A. 39:3-66, which specifies the proper maintenance of such

lamps and reflectors, provides:

         All lamps, reflectors and other illuminating
         devices required by this article shall be kept
         clean and in good working order and, as far as

                                  19
           practicable, shall be mounted in such a manner
           as to reduce the likelihood of their being
           obscured by mud or dust thrown up by the
           wheels.

           [(emphasis added).]

    When interpreting a statute we look first, and foremost, to

its actual language and ascribe to its words their ordinary

meaning.   Mason v. City of Hoboken, 
196 N.J. 51, 68 (2008)

(citing DiProspero v. Penn, 
183 N.J. 477, 492 (2005)).      “If in

ascribing to those words their 'ordinary meaning and

significance,’ the Legislators’ intent is self-evident, we need

not search further for guidance.”     Simon v. Cronecker, 
189 N.J.
 304, 332 (2007) (quoting DiProspero, 
183 N.J. at 492).

    The statutes read together require that a motor vehicle

only have two working rear lamps, with at least one working lamp

on each side.   See 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a); 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-66.

Additionally, 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-66 mandates that the lamps “required

by this article” must be kept in good working order.    Thus, if

there is only the minimum one taillight on each side of a

vehicle and either of those taillights is not working, an

officer can lawfully stop the vehicle and issue a citation for

failure to maintain lamps.   When a vehicle has more than the

minimum of two rear taillights, for example the vehicle has two

taillights on each side, an officer can lawfully stop the

vehicle when one side’s taillights are both out, even though the


                                 20
vehicle has two or more taillights illuminated on the other

side.   In other words, the statutes require one working

taillight on each side of a vehicle.   Thus, if a vehicle has two

taillights on each side of the vehicle -- more than the law

requires -- and one of those multiple taillights on one side is

not working, a violation of 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(a) and -66, as was

assumed and charged here, has not occurred.

    We find the language unambiguous and therefore need not

resort to legislative history.   Were that history to be examined

on the relevant question, we would note, as the State points

out, that the Legislature did at one point begin consideration

of an amendment; that amendment would have worked a different

interpretation of existing law as we read it, and as it was

applied in a prior unpublished decision that received

legislative attention.   As originally introduced at the outset

of the 2012 Legislative Session, Assembly Bill 354 would have

amended 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-66 and 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-61 to establish that

“an equipment violation [will be found] if any lighting device

installed on a vehicle is not in working order.”   Those proposed

amendments were never adopted by the Legislature, as the

Appellate Division noted in its opinion.   Sutherland, 
445 N.J.

Super. at 367 n.3.   We do not ascribe much weight to legislative

inaction but note merely that there has been no legislation to



                                 21
alter prior application of the pertinent statutes.     Cf. State v.

Smith, 
197 N.J. 325, 335 (2009).

       Finally, we reject the argument that 
N.J.S.A. 39:3-48,

which addresses visibility specifications for vehicle lights,

can inject ambiguity into the clear wording of the statutes at

issue here.   Nor does the permissive repair provision in


N.J.S.A. 39:3-61(l) -- which does not have applicability in the

present situation or in most modern malfunctioning-taillight

circumstances -- convert the interpretative question before us

into one that rises to the level of difficulty envisioned as the

“rare” case of an objectively reasonable misunderstanding of the

law.   See Heien, 
135 S. Ct.  at 541 (noting that such cases must

necessarily involve “very hard question[s] of statutory

interpretation”).

       Putting the statutes in question to rigorous analysis, we

fail to find them unclear, as the State suggests.    We find that

the officer’s erroneous application of the functioning taillight

requirement was not an objectively reasonable mistake of law.

This case does not present a basis for considering the

application of Heien and the Appellate Division erred in

reaching that determination based on the error here.     Simply

put, this was not a good stop.     Even Heien could not save it,

were we ever to consider adopting such an approach for the truly

rare case that rose to the level of an objectively reasonable

                                 22
mistake of law.   But this was not that case.     The judgment of

the Appellate Division, premised on an application of Heien to

the stop in this matter, is reversed.

    That, however, does not end the matter.

                                  V.

    The State also asserted community caretaking as an

alternative basis to support the stop.       It is a rule that allows

police officers to conduct warrantless searches where necessary

to “preserve life or property.”     State v. Edmonds, 
211 N.J. 117,

141–42 (2012) (summarizing community caretaking rule).      The

rationale for the community caretaking rule is that searches

made pursuant to the rule are “divorced from the detection,

investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the

violation of a criminal statute.”       Id. at 142 (quoting Cady v.

Dombrowski, 
413 U.S. 433, 441 (1973)).

    That doctrine was raised at the suppression hearing and

there was testimony from the officer on the point.      Although

raised on appeal, the Appellate Division did not reach the

argument in light of the manner in which it resolved the case.

Accordingly, a remand is appropriate to allow the Appellate

Division to address the unresolved argument advanced by the

State.

                                  VI.



                                  23
    The judgment of the Appellate Division is reversed.      We

remand the matter for further proceedings in the Appellate

Division.



     CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER     and JUSTICES    ALBIN,  PATTERSON,
FERNANDEZ-VINA, SOLOMON, AND TIMPONE join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA’s
opinion.




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