Driver’s Admission to Drinking Was Enough Probable Cause for Police to Order Breath Testing, According to New Jersey Court

Police_Mad_Liam [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via FlickrThe Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people from “unreasonable searches and seizures” by law enforcement. It requires police, in order to obtain a search warrant, to demonstrate “probable cause” to believe that the search will yield evidence of criminal activity. U.S. courts have identified various exceptions to the warrant requirement, but it remains a powerful safeguard of people’s rights. The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division recently considered a DWI defendant’s argument that her admission to drinking alcohol during a lawful traffic stop did not provide enough probable cause to justify breath testing or field sobriety testing. The court rejected this argument in State v. Dunn, finding that her voluntary admission was enough to establish probable cause.

Courts have identified numerous exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The “automobile exception,” for example, holds that cars and other motor vehicles may be subject to stops and limited searches without a warrant. The primary rationale for this exception is that any evidence a vehicle might contain is at risk of disappearing. This has an obvious bearing on DWI cases, many or most of which begin with a traffic stop.

The Supreme Court has held that police may stop a person and conduct a basic search, even without enough probable cause to support a warrant, if they have a reasonable suspicion that the person is in the process of committing, has recently committed, or is about to commit an offense. This is known as a “Terry stop,” after the Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in Terry v. Ohio. It applies both to in-person stops, often known as “stop and frisks,” and to traffic stops.

The “frisk” in Terry involved a search for a dangerous weapon on the defendant’s person. The Supreme Court noted that the purpose of the search was “the protection of the police officer and others nearby.” Courts have applied similar reasoning in allowing police to order breath testing based on suspicion of DWI. The question in Dunn involved the amount of evidence needed to justify breath and field sobriety testing during a traffic stop that was initially unrelated to suspicion of DWI.

The defendant in Dunn had parked her car on a side road next to a college athletic field, near a set of portable toilets. The arresting officer approached the vehicle to ask why the defendant had parked there. She stated that she had stopped to use a portable toilet, and then she allegedly “volunteered, without further questioning, that she had consumed three beers during an unspecified time period before operating her vehicle.” The officer claimed that he observed no other indication of alcohol consumption until she exited the vehicle, when he noticed an alcohol odor. He had her perform field sobriety tests and take a breath test, both of which indicated impairment.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the municipal court should have excluded the field sobriety and breath test evidence, since the officer’s justification for the stop ended “once he was satisfied that no criminal conduct had occurred.” Both the Law Division and the Appellate Division held that the overall circumstances of the stop, combined with the defendant’s admission to drinking earlier in the day, justified further action by the officer.

Evan M. Levow, a New Jersey DWI attorney, advocates for the rights of people charged with alleged DWI in the courts of this state. We at Levow DWI Law have dedicated 100% of our law practice to these types of cases. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with an experienced and skilled DWI defense advocate, contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717. We are available 24/7 to help you.

More Blog Posts:

Defendant Challenges Legal Sufficiency of “Standard Statement” Read During New Jersey DWI Arrests, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, March 5, 2016

New Jersey Supreme Court Reverses DWI Conviction Due to Insufficient Alcotest Documentation, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, February 21, 2016

Defendant in New Jersey DWI Case Raises “Double Jeopardy” Claim During Appeal, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, February 9, 2016

Photo credit: Police_Mad_Liam [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.