DWI Checkpoints Remain Legal in New Jersey, but Police Must Follow Strict Guidelines

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.

The position that DWI checkpoints violate drivers’ constitutional rights is, unfortunately, not entirely supported by the current state of U.S. law. The U.S. Supreme Court has generally held that a traffic stop is a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, but that checkpoints for the following specific purposes are constitutional:

– Immigration enforcement, United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 1976;
– DWI enforcement, Michigan State Police v. Sitz, 1990; and
– Traffic accident investigation, Illinois v. Lidster, 2004.

In 2000, however, the court ruled in City of Indianapolis v. Edmond that a checkpoint set up to check random vehicles for illegal narcotics violated the Fourth Amendment.

DWI checkpoints, according to the court’s decision in Sitz, advance the state’s legitimate interest in preventing drunk driving without excessive intrusion on drivers’ Fourth Amendment rights. Justice Stevens, in a dissenting opinion, noted that checkpoints seemed to have an “infinitesimal and possibly negative” effect on the rate of drunk driving, particularly since they are often unannounced and rely on “the element of surprise.”

New Jersey courts have affirmed the constitutionality of DWI checkpoints, such as the Appellate Division’s decisions in State v. Kirk (1985) and State v. Mazurek (1989), and the Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Carty (2002). Guidelines that police must follow include the use of a random mathematical formula to choose which vehicles to stop, visible locations for checkpoints, minimal time for each stop, the use of that time solely to check for overt signs of impairment, the availability of a separate area to conduct field sobriety tests, and consistent policies and procedures for checkpoints, as part of broader “safe driving” programs.

If you have been arrested for DWI, you should seek the assistance of a knowledgeable and skilled DWI attorney. At Levow & Associates, we have dedicated 100% of our law practice to defending the rights of people charged with DWI in New Jersey. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us online or at (877) 975-3399.

More Blog Posts:

“Distracted Driving” Laws in New Jersey Cover More than Just Cell Phones, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, February 3, 2015

Supreme Court Rules that Traffic Stop Was Lawful, Despite Police Officer’s Misunderstanding of Traffic Law, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, January 20, 2015

Court Ruling May Make Footage of Traffic Stops Available Earlier in New Jersey DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 28, 2014

Photo credit: Nemo [Public domain, CC0 1.0], via Pixabay.