The holiday season means many great things for people in New Jersey, such as family, friends, and celebration. Since the “celebration” part of the holidays can sometimes lead to excess, police tend to step up efforts to enforce New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws on roads during the holidays. This may include the use of roadside sobriety checkpoints. New Jersey police are allowed to stop drivers at temporary checkpoint locations to inquire about alcohol consumption and look for signs of intoxication. The ability of police to do this is strictly limited, however, by the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. New Jersey drivers should know their rights during sobriety checkpoint stops.
The New Jersey DWI statute defines the offense primarily as operating a motor vehicle “while under the influence” of alcohol or drugs, or with blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or more. The state may prove this by offering evidence of a defendant’s BAC obtained from a breath sample, which all drivers in New Jersey are required to provide under law, or through other evidence indicating that a defendant was impaired at the time they were operating a vehicle. Many DWI cases begin with a traffic stop based on a police officer’s suspicion that the driver is intoxicated. The Fourth Amendment requires that this be a “reasonable suspicion,” meaning that police officers cannot pull a driver over without some clear basis for suspecting DWI. To make an arrest, police must have “probable cause” to believe an offense has occurred.
Sobriety checkpoints, which allow police to stop some or all vehicles on a particular stretch of road, clearly do not involve “reasonable suspicion,” but the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed their constitutionality. In 1990, the court held in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz that preventing DWI was a “substantial government interest,” that sobriety checkpoints “reasonably…advance that interest,” and that “the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists” is minimal. The New Jersey Appellate Division held that a sobriety checkpoint was constitutional in 1985 in State v. Kirk, and in 1989 in State v. Mazurek. The New Jersey Supreme Court reached a similar ruling in 2002’s State v. Carty.