Much of New Jersey is currently shut down because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit this state particularly hard. In some ways, this has slowed enforcement of driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws, but in other ways, New Jersey police are even more on alert. Municipal courts across the state remain closed under an order from the New Jersey Supreme Court, so any pending or new cases must wait for court dates. The governor’s emergency orders, on the other hand, require people to limit their movement and interactions with others, in the hopes of slowing the spread of the virus. Police are on the lookout for violators. Recent news coverage of arrests during the coronavirus lockdown has also shown how DWI enforcement can involve both criminal and motor vehicle laws.
DWI During a Lockdown
The New Jersey DWI statute defines the offense as operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or while one has blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. Police can pull drivers over if they have reasonable suspicion that they have committed a traffic offense, such as running a stop sign, failing to use a turn signal, or driving erratically. If additional evidence leads them to suspect DWI, such as the odor of alcohol or the driver’s appearance or behavior, they may conduct a further investigation. This could include field sobriety tests or breath testing to determine BAC.
The executive orders issued by the governor in response to the coronavirus pandemic have given police in New Jersey additional justifications for pulling over drivers. It is too early to know if this will lead to more DWI arrests, but it is a possibility. On March 21, 2020, the governor issued Executive Order 107, which instructs “all New Jersey residents [to] remain home or at their place of residence” unless they are performing essential tasks like going to work, seeking medical attention, or going to the grocery store. State law allows law enforcement to penalize violations of this order as a disorderly persons offense.