Cops Can't Stop Cars for Using High Beams, Rules New Jersey Supreme Court
By Emma Platoff
It was 3 a.m. on a November Sunday, and the car had just turned left onto Adams Street in Newark, N.J. Al-Sharif Scriven was in the front passenger seat, a .40 caliber handgun under his jacket, with hollow-nose bullets and a large-capacity magazine stowed elsewhere in the car.
It was nothing about Scriven, or the others in the car, but rather that the car's high beams were on that caught the eye of David Cohen, an Essex County sheriff's officer who was on Adams waiting for a truck to tow an unregistered vehicle.
He stopped the car, intending to tell the driver she was using her beams improperly, but after noticing the smell of burnt marijuana on the passenger side, asked Scriven to step out.
The driver was later issued a ticket for violating the high-beam statute. The weapon, along with the ammunition in the car, was seized, and Scriven was put under arrest and charged with unlawful possession of a .40 caliber handgun, the bullets and the magazine, as well as receiving stolen property.
After a ruling Wednesday by the New Jersey Supreme Court, that evidence will be suppressed and the charges dropped. The court ruled unanimously that the stop was unconstitutional.
State law requires drivers to dim their high beams only when approaching an oncoming vehicle. The court ruled in a 6-0 decision that because the driver was approaching a parked car and an officer on foot -- neither of which "count as an oncoming vehicle" -- the driver had not committed a violation and Cohen was not justified in stopping the vehicle.
"The language of the high-beam 3 statute, N.J.S.A. 39:3-60, is unambiguous," Justice Barry Albin wrote.
The state also argued that Cohen was justified in stopping the car based on the community-caretaking doctrine, which allows police officers who reasonably believe that a driver may be impaired to stop vehicles. But the court rejected that argument because the evidence did not suggest the driver was impaired.
In January 2014, two months after the car stop, Scriven was charged for stealing a car while carrying a firearm. He was sentenced in December 2015 to 97 months in prison, and is currently serving his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Dix.
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