In general, a police initiated stop of a motor vehicle may be legally justified by three principles of law under both the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution and Article I, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. First, a New Jersey police officer is entitled to conduct a traffic stop when the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a violation of the motor vehicle laws. Such suspicion may be based upon objectively reasonable evidence that the driver has committed a moving violation or that the vehicle is being operated in violation of the licensing, equipment, or registration laws of the State. The evidence supporting the traffic stop need not be sufficient to support a conviction and does not need to be based upon probable cause. All that is required is reasonable suspicion.
A second justification for a motor vehicle stop in New Jersey is the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement. This exception, which I have previously discussed in various articles, essentially allows the police to stop a motor vehicle when there is objectively reasonable evidence for the police officer to conclude that something may be wrong with the vehicle or the driver.
A third justification for a traffic stop is based on New Jersey common law: Police have the right and obligation to effect a motor vehicle stop and inquire of a vehicle’s occupants when the police have objectively reasonable evidence to suggest that criminal activity is being planned or conducted.
The Chief Administrator of the Motor Vehicle Commission in New Jersey has been given the authority to create rules and regulations controlling the necessary equipment to be used on motor vehicles that are registered in NJ. All vehicles that are registered in this State must be properly equipped at all times. When a vehicle is not so equipped, it is in violation of the law and becomes subject to a motor vehicle stop by the police based upon one of the three reasons I just discussed. However, if a police officer effects a motor vehicle stop based upon a perceived violation for an equipment issue that does not actually exist, the stop is not justified under any theory as being objectively reasonable. The police officer’s good faith and subjective belief that he or she witnessed a violation are essentially irrelevant.