In State v. Smith, 251 N.J. 244, 252 (2022), detectives stopped the defendant David Smith’s vehicle for a purported tinted windows violation based on dark tinting observed solely on the defendant’s rear windshield. “Despite the rear windshield’s tint, the detectives were able to see that defendant was alone in the car and was making a furtive ‘shoving’ motion, raising suspicions that he was trying to conceal a weapon.” Ibid. The detectives found a firearm during a subsequent search of the vehicle. Ibid. The defendant received a citation for a tinted windows violation under N.J.S.A. 39:3-74 and was also charged with various weapons offenses. Ibid.
“Defendant moved to suppress the firearm, arguing that the motor vehicle stop was unlawful because the detectives could not have had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the tinting on defendant’s rear windshield violated N.J.S.A. 39:3-74 [of the Motor Vehicle Code].” Ibid. N.J.S.A. 39:3-74 provides in relevant part that: “No person shall drive any motor vehicle with any . . . non-transparent material upon the front windshield. . . or front side windows of such vehicle.”
“The trial court denied defendant’s motion, concluding that the car stop was supported by a reasonable suspicion of a tinted windows violation pursuant to adjacent statute N.J.S.A. 39:3-75,” which provided an additional basis for the stop. Ibid. N.J.S.A. 39:3-75 provides, in relevant part, that: “No person shall drive any motor vehicle equipped with safety glazing material which causes undue or unsafe distortion of visibility or equipped with unduly fractured, discolored or deteriorated safety glazing material.” The Appellate Division affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress the firearm. Ibid.
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and held that “the stop was not supported by a reasonable and articulable suspicion of a motor vehicle violation,” and further held that “N.J.S.A. 39:3-75, which governs automotive safety glass, does not apply to window tint violations.” Id. at 252-53. Moreover, “consistent with the plain language of N.J.S.A. 39:3-74,” the Court held “that reasonable and articulable suspicion of a tinted windows violation arises only when a vehicle’s front windshield or front side windows are so darkly tinted that police cannot clearly see people or articles within the car.” Id. at 253.
In reaching that determination the Supreme Court first set forth the well-established constitutional protections governing a motor vehicle stop, as follows:
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution guarantee “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” A motor vehicle stop by a police officer, no matter how brief or limited, is a “‘seizure’ of ‘persons'” under both the Federal and State Constitutions. State v. Scriven, 226 N.J. 20, 33 (2016) (quoting State v. Dickey, 152 N.J. 468, 475 (1998)). To justify such a seizure, “a police officer must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the driver of a vehicle, or its occupants, is committing a motor-vehicle violation or a criminal or disorderly persons offense.” Id. at 33-34. “The suspicion necessary to justify a stop must not only be reasonable, but also particularized.” Id. at 37.
[State v. Smith, 251 N.J. at 257-58.]
Because the reasonableness of a motor vehicle stop for tinted windows depended on the standards set forth in our motor vehicle code, the Court began by analyzing N.J.S.A. 39:3-74. Id. at 288. The Court found that the statute, N.J.S.A. 39:3-74, had been enacted in 1921 and last amended in 1937, and thus, interestingly, pre-dated automotive window tinting. Id. at 259. Nonetheless, the Court found that N.J.S.A. 39:3-74 had “been consistently cited as the statutory basis for tinted window stops.” Ibid.
The Court found, as noted above, that N.J.S.A. 39:3-74 only applies to “non-transparent material upon the front windshield, . . . or front side windows.” Id. at 260. The detective’s testimony established that the window tint was only on the rear windshield of the defendant’s vehicle. Ibid. “Under the statute’s plain language, the tint on defendant’s rear windshield could not constitute a violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-74. It did not give rise to the reasonable and articulable suspicion necessary to justify this motor vehicle stop.” Ibid. Tinting of the rear window and rear side windows was simply not prohibited under the statute.
Further, N.J.S.A. 39:3-75 (safety glass), as cited by the trial court as an additional statutory basis for the stop of the defendant’s vehicle was, as the State subsequently conceded, not applicable here. Id. at 261. The Court found that “[t]he plain language of section 75 [N.J.S.A. 39:3-75] indicates that it is concerned solely with the quality and maintenance of such safety glazing material, not aftermarket tinted window film.” Ibid.
Additionally, the Court found that other statutory provisions addressing motor vehicle window tinting were equally inapplicable to this case. Ibid. For example, N.J.S.A. 39:3-75.1 provides an exception to window tinting restrictions, permitting the application of certain tinting materials on car windows and windshields for medical reasons, and “N.J.S.A. 39:3-75.2 authorizes the promulgation of rules and regulations specifying standards for permissible window tint, including allowable percentages of light transmittance, but does not itself establish such specifications. In short, no statute supports the stop at issue.” Ibid. Thus, the Court held “that the initial stop of defendant’s vehicle was unconstitutional because no statutory or regulatory provision forms the basis for a reasonable and articulable suspicion that defendant committed a tinted windows violation.” Id. at 263.
Lastly, the Court held that “the term ‘non-transparent’ used in N.J.S.A. 39:3-74 is not impermissibly vague and means that reasonable suspicion of a tinted windows violation arises when a vehicle’s front windshield or front side windows are so darkly tinted that police cannot clearly see people or articles within the car.” Id. at 265. The Court set forth that “this construction ‘can be easily grasped by the public.’” Ibid. (quoting State v. Scriven, 226 N.J. 20, 34 (2016).
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