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NJ High Court Says Cops Can't Stop Drivers for Legal High Beam Use

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on July 25, 2016 12:59 PM

A driver having the high beams on alone on an empty city street at night is not a valid basis for a traffic stop, at least not in New Jersey. The state's highest court affirmed rulings below, finding that the search of a passenger in a car stopped on an empty street, based on illuminated high beams, was not reasonable. The lights did not give the officer probable cause. As a result, the passenger's arrest on a number of charges is suppressed, reports

Suspect Suspicions

The New Jersey police officer, David Cohen, testified that he noticed a car on an empty street at a stop sign with its high beams on and approached to give a warning about the lights. Near the car, he said, he smelled marijuana and searched the passenger, Al-Sharif Scriven, who was charged with possession of an unlicensed handgun and stolen property, among other offenses.

The officer's testimony was somewhat contradictory, it seems. Officer Cohen said he approached the vehicle only to give a warning but he also stated that illuminated high beams sometimes signal that a car is stolen. That latter statement indicates a search based on an assumption that bright lights likely mean a crime has occurred. But in New Jersey there is no prohibition on using high beams except when there is an oncoming car with an oncoming driver on the road and the officer's suspicion was deemed unreasonable.

Defense Arguments

The defendant, Scriven, was a passenger in the car. He argued that the officer had no basis for the stop or search, since illuminated high beams were not enough to trigger reasonable suspicion. His argument was affirmed at every turn and challenged by the state. Ultimately, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with Scriven that the search was unreasonable and that high beams alone did not justify a stop where their use did not violate the law.


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