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I finally got around to reading the March 2, 2018, advance sheet and am mighty glad I did. The very first case I came upon crystallizes why I still love the law and its many interesting convolutions some 44 years after being admitted to the Bar.

In State v. Sutherland, 231 N.J. 429 (2018), the Supreme Court reviews two rather mundane but legally intriguing motor vehicle regulations. It all begins on a rainy winter evening when Ryan Sutherland has the singular misfortune of crossing the path of an overly alert and somewhat aggressive Mt. Olive police officer out on highway patrol. After their two cars pass one another, Officer Carletta glances in the rearview mirror of his patrol car only to notice that one of Sutherland’s four taillights is unlit. Without missing a beat, Carletta quickly U-turns and stops the hapless Sutherland dead in his tracks. The ever-vigilant officer quickly discovers that Sutherland is on the revoked list. He issues two tickets, one for that violation and another for failure to maintain all four lamps in good working order.

NJSA 39:3-61(a) requires motor vehicles to have two rear tail lamps and “two or more stop lamps,” while companion statute NJSA 39:3-66 mandates that “[a]ll lamps … required by this article shall be kept … in good working order ….”

A Morris County grand jury indicts Sutherland for the fourth-degree crime of driving while suspended due to a second DWI conviction. Sutherland files a motion to suppress evidence of his stop, arguing that Carletta had no reasonable basis to stop him because his car had both of the required two tail lamps and two stop lamps in good working order.

The motion judge agrees with Sutherland and grants the motion to suppress. The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office thereupon files a motion for leave to appeal, which the Appellate Division grants. In its opinion published at 445 N.J. Super. 358 (App. Div. 2016), the three-judge panel rules that even though one inoperable tail light out of four may not technically violate the two-lamp requirement of the statute, Carletta still had an objectively reasonable basis for stopping Sutherland despite his mistaken interpretation of the law. That is so, the decision recites, because the “Fourth Amendment tolerates objectively reasonable mistakes of law.”

The Supreme Court grants defendant’s motion for leave to appeal. In its subsequent ruling, the court reverses the Appellate Division and reinstates the Law Division’s decision granting the motion to suppress. In reviewing the regulatory statutes, the court resorts to hornbook law; it must consider a statute’s “actual language and ascribe to its words their ordinary meaning.” Relying upon the “unambiguous” statutory language, the court agrees with the Appellate Division that so long as at least one tail light and one stop light are in good working order on each side of a car, a motorist is in full compliance with the regulatory scheme no matter how many other rear lights may be burned out and not in good working order.

But the Supreme Court disagrees with the Appellate Division’s secondary finding of law and holds that it thereby erred since the officer’s “erroneous application of the functioning taillight requirement was not an objectively reasonable mistake of law.” Ergo, “this was not a good stop.”

After mulling the decision over for a while, I came to the realization that three astute judges learned in the law can reasonably find that the clear language of a statute can mean one thing to a reasonably objective police officer, while eight other astute judges equally learned in the law can reasonably find that the clear language of the same statute can mean no such thing. Thus, an 8-3 victory for defendant. Or maybe 8-4, if you accept that the only unlearned judge of the law in this entire episode, one who presumably never sat for a Bar exam, still considers his actions to be an entirely reasonable encounter under his understanding of Fourth Amendment law. At least when viewed through the lens of a rearview mirror.

Should Officer Carletta still remember his high school reading of “Oliver Twist,” do you think this bewildered cop associates his own tortuous plight with Mr. Bumble’s irreverent response to a judge’s decree as to what the law supposes, understandably agreeing with Bumble’s humble assessment that, “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass—a idiot.”

Of course, Dickens never writes of Bumble’s appeal. Perhaps for good reason. Forsooth, his fictional character may very well have discovered, as has the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, that appeals rarely get you where you want to be.

 

Rachmiel is a certified civil and criminal trial attorney practicing out of his own firm in Springfield.