NJ Supreme Court rules cops cannot stop car if license plate only slightly obscured

August 17, 2021

In a verdict hailed by civil libertarians as a check on law enforcement power, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Monday that police cannot stop a driver just because their license plate bracket or plateholder obscures the vehicle’s tag slightly.

The supreme court unanimously decided that the fact that the bracket partially obscures information on the tag was insufficient to justify a stop. For a traffic stop to be legal, the relevant information – a letter, number, or state name — must be rendered unrecognizable by the plateholder.

The verdict puts an end to what civil libertarians have long complained about: illegal pretextual stops, which are stops undertaken for no or little justification in order to justify questioning a motorist. Such stops allow officers to ask unrelated questions, such as why the motorist is in the neighborhood or if the vehicle contains narcotics or weapons.