Unsplash [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayAn individual who has made a name for himself publicizing the locations of police checkpoints in Southern California recently settled a wrongful arrest lawsuit against a California city. A police officer arrested him for alleged DWI, he claimed in his lawsuit, after he refused to submit to a field sobriety test. He maintained that he was not impaired, and that the officer had no probable cause to suspect that he was. While we as DWI attorneys would not necessarily encourage anyone to make a spectacle out of their assertion of their constitutional rights, this lawsuit demonstrates how police can infringe on the the rights of drivers during traffic stops, which can lead to dismissal of charges.

The plaintiff, using the name “Mr. Checkpoint,” operates a website that publishes the locations of police checkpoints, where officers stop vehicles at random to check for DWI. He makes this information available to people on the website, via the social media service Twitter, and through text message subscriptions. The practice is reportedly not popular with some law enforcement agencies, but L.A. Weekly noted in 2013 that making this information easily accessible encourages people who might otherwise drink and drive “to think about either staying home to party, finding a designated driver or calling a cab.”

The traffic stop that led to the lawsuit occurred in late 2011. He was pulled over in Santa Monica for allegedly making an illegal right turn. He recorded audio of this incident on his phone. The officer arrested him for DWI when he refused to perform a field sobriety test. He spent the night in jail, his car was impounded, and his dogs, who were in the backseat, were taken to the pound. He was able to retrieve the car and his dogs, and the prosecutors declined to file charges when blood test results showed no alcohol.

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Nemo [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayDWI checkpoints have long been controversial among criminal defense attorneys and others who advocate for the rights of the accused. A series of videos recently posted on the internet purportedly show a person asserting his right to remain silent at checkpoints and then being allowed to proceed by police. Many drivers have refused to speak to officers at checkpoints around the country, but this is not a foolproof method of avoiding trouble with the police. Both the U.S. and the New Jersey Supreme Courts have affirmed the constitutionality of DWI checkpoints, although some states prohibit their use. If the police are authorized to stop a vehicle at random, a driver’s refusal to answer questions may not preclude police from finding probable cause to conduct a further search or make an arrest. New Jersey drivers need to know their rights, but they should also know what the law says police can do at DWI checkpoints.

A long-standing principle of American law is that police must have reasonable suspicion of a crime in order to initiate a traffic stop. Checkpoints seem to sidestep that requirement by allowing entirely random stops. A Florida lawyer has gained a considerable following with videos that show him refusing to speak to an officer, or even to roll down his window, at DWI checkpoints. Instead, he places his driver’s license and vehicle registration against the window, along with a note stating that he asserts his right to remain silent, does not consent to a search, and wishes to speak to an attorney. These are the basic rights guaranteed by, respectively, the Fifth, Fourth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution.

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By Fry1989 eh? (Brunei Darussalam Road Safety Council) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsPretrial intervention (PTI) is a program operated by the New Jersey court system that allows defendants the chance to avoid the ordinary criminal prosecution process. Although it is not available to people charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI), it is still worth understanding because traffic stops and DWI arrests sometimes lead to criminal charges instead of, or in addition to, a DWI charge. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently considered the question of whether the state could deny admission to a PTI program based on prior dismissed charges or arrests. The case, State v. K.S., began with an arrest for alleged DWI, which led to additional criminal charges. The court held that the state cannot infer guilt based only on an arrest or a charge, and therefore it cannot keep a defendant out of PTI based on charges that were dismissed.

Defendants who qualify for the PTI program can avoid criminal prosecution in New Jersey courts. Participants in PTI may be ordered to perform community service, pay restitution, and complete other services. They must also avoid any further criminal trouble during their time in the program. If they complete the program, which can take up to 36 months, the case is dismissed, and they may be eligible to have the charge and arrest expunged from their record. Failure to meet any of these requirements results in the return of the case to the criminal docket.

New Jersey court rules and statutes set out the criteria for prosecutors and PTI program directors to consider regarding admission to the program. The program typically excludes people with prior convictions, people who are on parole or probation, and people who have previously been admitted to PTI or a similar program. DWI and related offenses are considered traffic offenses under New Jersey law, not criminal offenses. Defendants are therefore not eligible for PTI on the basis of a DWI charge.
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By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Bruce McVicar [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsWhen police in New Jersey suspect someone of driving while intoxicated (DWI), they may ask them to take a field sobriety test (FST) before placing them under arrest. A person could “fail” FSTs for any number of reasons besides intoxication, such as injury, weather conditions, or even just standing on a slope. Challenging an officer’s administration of a test, which can significantly affect its outcome, can be extremely beneficial to a defendant’s case. As the first New Jersey lawyer qualified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to train law enforcement officers to administer FSTs, Evan Levow is in a unique position to assist defendants in DWI cases.

Many people believe that “passing” the FST will allow them to avoid being arrested, but most of the time, police have already made that decision. They usually hope that FST results will provide additional probable cause for the arrest, or that they will serve as circumstantial evidence of intoxication if chemical testing does not provide useful results. The state will try to show that any difference between how an officer explains a test and how a driver performs on it is evidence of impairment. The officer must follow specific guidelines for administering certain FSTs, however, and an error on the officer’s part could invalidate the entire test.

The NHTSA’s Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) consists of three tests, with specific instructions for officers and a scoring system:

One Leg Stand, in which the officer looks for impaired balance. The driver is instructed to stand with one foot about six inches above the ground while counting aloud, usually for 30 seconds.
Walk and Turn, which also looks at balance as well as coordination and attention to instructions. The driver is instructed to walk heel-to-toe along a straight line, turn on one foot, and return along the same path.
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), which refers to the involuntary jerking motion of a person’s eyes during side-to-side movement. The officer might tell a driver to look at the tip of a pen or other object, then follow it back and forth with their eyes. The theory is that HGN will be faster or more pronounced in intoxicated people. New Jersey courts do not allow use of the HGN test as evidence of guilt, as discussed more below. Continue reading →

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons“Distracted driving,” which typically refers to texting or talking on the phone while driving, is the subject of a wave of new laws around the country. While the focus is often on mobile phones, “distracted driving” laws could cover a much wider range of activities. This is of concern to us as DWI attorneys because any activity that a police officer reasonably believes to be a distraction could be grounds for a traffic stop, and all of the potential consequences of a traffic stop. No states have passed laws addressing specific distractions besides cell phones, although legislators in New Jersey have tried.

According to the state Attorney General, distracted driving was a factor in about 1.4 million automobile accidents in New Jersey between 2004 and 2013. This is nearly half of the three million accidents that occurred during this time period. Distracted driving was not the cause of all of those accidents, just a factor, but lawmakers have taken note and are taking a hard line on the subject. The Attorney General identifies activities that could constitute distractions while driving, including eating, checking one’s hair or makeup, using a GPS device or reading a map, and even adjusting the stereo. Any of these could, in theory, be grounds for a traffic stop.

In Georgia, police issued a citation to a man in mid-January 2015 for the alleged offense of “eating while driving.” The officer reportedly told the man that he had followed him for two miles after he purchased a hamburger from a fast-food restaurant, and that the officer had witnessed him eating the entire time. The officer wrote a ticket under the state’s distracted driving law, which does not specifically mention eating. Aside from cell phones and other mobile communications devices, Georgia law only requires drivers to “exercise due care.” Continue reading →

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsPending legislation in at least two states would restrict sales of alcohol to people convicted of DWI offenses. A bill in the New Mexico State House of Representatives would allow a court to include a prohibition on alcohol purchases in an order requiring use of an ignition interlock device (IID). A bill in the Oklahoma State Senate goes even farther, allowing a court to bar the purchase of alcohol by anyone convicted of DWI. Anyone providing alcohol to someone under such a restriction could face criminal liability. States have near-total control over the regulation of alcoholic beverages, and at least one state already has such a law on the books. Lawmakers and others have suggested similar legislation in Texas and Washington state, but New Jersey does not have a law allowing this sort of restriction.

The sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal throughout the United States during a period known as Prohibition, which began with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. The Twenty-First Amendment, ratified in 1933, repealed the Eighteenth Amendment and left the regulation of alcoholic beverages up to the states. A series of Supreme Court decisions have explored the extent to which states may restrict the sale or purchase of alcohol. Alaska allows courts to order a person who has been convicted of DWI to “refrain from consuming alcoholic beverages,” and to prohibit him or her from purchasing alcohol. The state may issue a new driver’s license or other identification to a person subject to this restriction, which indicates the restriction.

New Mexico’s HB30 would amend the state’s IID law to allow a judge to prohibit a defendant from purchasing alcoholic beverages for as long as that individual is required to have an IID installed in his or her vehicle. Much like the Alaska law, the state would issue a new identification card indicating the alcohol restriction. The bill’s sponsor introduced it during the last legislative session in 2013. It passed the New Mexico House but failed to pass in the Senate. He introduced it again in December 2014. Continue reading →

193584 [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayThe U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in December 2014 that could have a significant effect on DWI cases in New Jersey. The case involves two fundamental principles of the American criminal justice system. First, law enforcement officers must have reasonable suspicion of a criminal or traffic offense in order to make a traffic stop. Second, it is not a defense to prosecution for a person to claim that he or she did not know something was illegal. What happens, however, when a police officer makes a mistake of law? In Heien v. North Carolina, a defendant argued that a traffic stop that resulted in drug charges was unreasonable because the officer incorrectly thought having only one working brake light was a traffic violation. The court held that the officer did not violate the defendant’s rights, despite not knowing the law, since the mistake was “reasonable.”

An officer pulled the defendant’s vehicle over in April 29, 2009 at about 8:00 a.m. He testified that he saw the vehicle pass on the highway and thought the driver looked “very stiff and nervous.” After following the vehicle for several miles, he noticed that it had only one working brake light. He pulled the vehicle over, believing this to be a traffic violation. The defendant, who owned the vehicle, consented to a search, and the officer found drugs.

The defendant pleaded guilty to drug charges after the trial court denied his motion to suppress the results of the search, reserving the right to appeal. A state appellate court reversed the conviction, finding that the traffic stop was unreasonable because the driver had not broken any traffic laws. The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed that ruling, and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. Continue reading →

Kim [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)], via FlickrThe holiday season, starting with Halloween and continuing through Christmas and other winter holidays, always brings stories of unusual events that go “viral” on the internet, including strange or embarrassing DWI arrests. This unwanted, if usually only temporary, fame is yet another consequence of a DWI arrest that happens regardless of the outcome in court. A DWI attorney’s job is not only to represent his or her clients in court, but to help them minimize the impact of an alleged offense on their lives while the court case is pending. Several news stories from the past year, including one in New Jersey, fell into this category. Our intention in discussing them is not to embarrass or make light of anyone, but rather to illustrate some important points of New Jersey DWI law that people need to know at any time of year.

The most recent story occurred in late December 2014, when police in Riverdale, New Jersey claim that they found a man asleep in a vehicle who was dressed as the popular “Elf on the Shelf” holiday toy. Although the vehicle was parked, its engine was reportedly running, the headlights were on, and the stereo was playing loudly. The officers alleged that they noticed a strong odor of alcohol on the man’s breath. They administered a field sobriety test and took him to the station for breath testing. He was issued a summons for DWI and released to a family member.

DWI cases usually begin with a traffic stop based on a police officer’s reasonable suspicion that the driver is impaired. Under New Jersey law, however, officers do not actually have to witness the person driving. In this case, state law enforcement guidelines for DWI cases say that police could infer that the man had been operating the vehicle because of its location in a parking lot, or the fact that its engine was running and the headlights were on. These observations may support probable cause for an arrest, but prosecutors must still prove all of the elements of DWI to obtain a conviction. Continue reading →

Unsplash [Public domain, CC0 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)], via PixabayNew Jersey law directs courts to apply sentencing enhancements for a second driving while intoxicated (DWI) conviction, with additional enhancements for third and subsequent convictions. In certain circumstances, however, trial courts may not use sentencing enhancements when the statute might otherwise require them to do so. A “step-down” provision in the DWI statute, for example, directs courts not to apply sentencing enhancements if enough time has passed since the most recent prior conviction. We recently represented a client who wanted to use the step-down provision, but the trial court would not allow it. It said that he was limited to one use of the step-down provision, and he had already used it once before. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in our client’s favor, finding that the DWI statute allows use of the step-down provision more than once.

The step-down provision, found in the last paragraph of Section 39:4-50(a)(3) of the New Jersey Revised Statutes, states that if a person’s second DWI offense occurs more than 10 years after the first offense, the court must treat the second offense as a first offense during sentencing. If a third offense occurs more than 10 years after the second offense, the court must use the sentencing guidelines for a second offense. A 1990 decision from the New Jersey Supreme Court, State v. Laurick, sets another important limit on a court’s sentencing authority. A court may not use a prior DWI conviction to enhance a subsequent conviction if the defendant was not represented by counsel in the prior case.

The defendant in our case had prior DWI convictions from 1981, 1982, and 1994. The trial court applied second-offense sentencing enhancements in the 1994 case, since, while it was technically the third offense, it occurred more than 10 years after the most recent prior offense. Here is where the case can get confusing. The defendant was not represented by an attorney in the 1982 case, so the trial court should not have considered it during sentencing. An appellate court reduced his sentence for the 1994 offense to first-offense levels. Continue reading →

By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsMany states, including New Jersey, have an “implied consent” statute that allows police, in cases of suspected driving while intoxicated (DWI), to collect samples for chemical testing without first obtaining a search warrant, whether the suspect consents or not. This usually involves collecting a sample of the suspect’s breath, but police may also direct a medical professional to draw a blood sample without a warrant in some circumstances. A 2013 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court significantly limited the ability of police to collect blood samples without a warrant, and several state supreme courts have followed suit. New Jersey continues to allow warrantless blood draws, although they are subject to new restrictions.

Under New Jersey law, anyone “operat[ing] a motor vehicle on any public road, street or highway or quasi-public area” within the state is considered to have consented to providing a breath sample, provided that a police officer has “reasonable grounds” to suspect the person of DWI. The U.S. Supreme Court held, in 1966’s Schmerber v. California, that police may collect a blood sample without a warrant, over a person’s objection, if they believe that there is not enough time to get a warrant before evidence is lost or destroyed. This is known as the “exigent circumstances” exception. New Jersey’s Supreme Court has followed this view, most recently in State v. Adkins in 2013.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed its Schmerber holding on exigent circumstances in a 2013 decision, Missouri v. McNeely, which held that the mere fact that alcohol metabolizes over time does not constitute exigent circumstances. Since then, several states have revisited their laws regarding warrantless blood testing. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, that state’s highest criminal court, ruled in November 2014 in Texas v. Villarreal that a warrantless blood draw without the suspect’s express consent violates the Fourth Amendment, rejecting the state’s argument that the defendant could be deemed to have consented. The court noted that state supreme courts in Idaho, Nevada, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Arizona have also recently concluded that implied consent laws do not justify warrantless blood draws. Continue reading →