New Jersey Deputy Attorney General Claudia Joy DeMitro, ’12, argued that the New Jersey Supreme Court should reverse the suppression of evidence in a case involving unlawful possession of a weapon.
DeMitro (née Hage) appeared before the state’s highest court on April 26, joining Special Deputy Attorney General Frank Ducoat to argue a case involving a weapons arrest by an officer who had stopped a vehicle for using high-beam lights on a well-lit street in Newark.
An appellate court agreed to suppress evidence related to the weapons violation, ruling that there was no valid basis for the traffic stop, since the driver had not violated the high-beam statute’s prohibition against using such lights within 500 feet of an oncoming vehicle and since the officer was standing outside his own stopped cruiser at the time.
The judges peppered Ducoat and DeMitro with questions about the wording of the high-beam statute, the meaning of “oncoming vehicle” and the community caretaking exception to the Fourth Amendment.
Citing prior rulings, DeMitro noted that the N.J. Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have permitted an officer who is incorrect both on fact and on law to have a reasonable suspicion for making a stop.
“The U.S. Supreme Court in Heien made clear that a mistake of law relates to the antecedent question of whether it was reasonable for the officer to suspect defendant’s conduct was illegal,” DeMitro said, referring to the Heien v. North Carolina case, decided in 2014. “When an officer has reasonable articulable suspicion, there’s no constitutional violation to be remedied.”
The arresting officer had credibly testified that the driver’s decision to use high beam lights on a nearly empty and brightly lit road blinded him and raised “red flags” that gave him reasonable suspicion, DeMitro said.
“From Heien v. North Carolina, we know statutes that pose a really difficult hard question of statutory interpretation lend credence to a conclusion that an officer made a reasonable mistake of law,” DeMitro said.
A passenger in the stopped vehicle was in possession of a stolen gun, hollow-point bullets and a large-capacity magazine.