Articles Posted in Motor Vehicle Stop

Police carThe Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution protects numerous rights against abuses and injustice in criminal cases. Most of these constitutional rights apply in New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases, including the Fourth Amendment’s protection of people’s right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Identifying violations of these rights is a major component of defending against DWI charges. Most DWI cases begin with a traffic stop, in which police pull a vehicle over on the road. Police must have a “reasonable suspicion” of some sort of wrongdoing for a traffic stop to be legal. Challenging the legality of a stop can lead to the exclusion of most or all of the state’s evidence and the dismissal of the case.

According to the Fourth Amendment, police must obtain a warrant before conducting a search or seizing a person or their property. That warrant must be supported by probable cause to believe that doing so will produce evidence of a crime or another offense. The U.S. Supreme Court has held, however, that police may briefly detain a person to investigate possible criminal activity when they do not have probable cause, if they have a “reasonable suspicion” of something unlawful. This type of stop is known as a “Terry stop,” after the Supreme Court’s decision in Terry v. Ohio in 1968.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that traffic stops are “seizures” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and they are therefore subject to the restrictions established by Terry. A 1984 Supreme Court decision, Berkemer v. McCarty, found that Terry applies to traffic stops for suspected traffic offenses, including DWI. It also held that people are entitled to the protections of the Fifth Amendment, including the rights described in Miranda v. Arizona, if they are taken into custody during a traffic stop.

EmojiAnyone who watches cop shows on television knows the warning police must read to a suspect when they place them under arrest. Known as the “Miranda warning,” after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona, it is legally required before police may formally interrogate a suspect. The list of rights identified in the Miranda warning are commonly known as Miranda rights. Miranda is considered a landmark decision in criminal justice. Although New Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) statute classifies the offense as a motor vehicle offense, rather than a “crime,” Miranda still applies when police take a DWI suspect into custody.

The Miranda decision arose from a confession signed by a suspect after hours of police interrogation, during which time he was never advised of various constitutional rights. The Supreme Court held that the confession was inadmissible because the defendant did not give it voluntarily, but instead under duress from police officers. The court further stated that police must stop an interrogation once an individual has asserted certain rights. It directed police to advise people of their rights before or at the time they are arrested. From this, the Miranda warning was born. The court would later specifically rule that Miranda applies to DWI cases in Berkemer v. McCarty in 1984.

The first right identified in the Miranda warning—the right to remain silent—refers to the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination during “custodial interrogation.” The important question to consider regarding how Miranda applies in New Jersey DWI cases involves the definition of “custody,” as well as the meaning of “silence.” The two are closely related, as the caselaw shows, and DWI cases present at least one specific complication of the idea of the right to remain silent. In New Jersey and many other states, DWI suspects are required by law to provide breath samples for chemical testing. Courts have generally held that this does not violate the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination.

Interrogation Room at Alcatraz IslandWhen police detain and question a person on suspicion of driving while intoxicated (DWI), the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution protect that person’s rights. The Fourteenth Amendment officially extended most of the Bill of Rights to state-level law enforcement, meaning that local police are subject to the same constraints as the federal government. In the context of New Jersey DWI cases, the Fourth Amendment states that police cannot detain someone, such as by pulling over their vehicle, without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. The Fifth Amendment states that a defendant cannot be forced to testify against themselves, and limits the state’s ability to use certain statements made by defendants against them in court. Exactly when this right against self-incrimination applies has been a matter of ongoing dispute in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has made several rulings specifically addressing incriminating statements in DWI cases.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case addressing the right against self-incrimination during police interrogation is Miranda v. Arizona, decided in 1966. Information obtained by police from a person, after they have invoked their “right to remain silent” during “custodial interrogation,” is inadmissible in court. While people can refuse to answer police questions at almost any time, Miranda obligates police to advise people of their rights in specific scenarios. Many subsequent court decisions have found that Miranda only applies once a person has been formally placed under arrest and read this list of rights. Whether a person is “under arrest” during a traffic stop is a complicated question.

Police do not typically give Miranda warnings to DWI suspects at the beginning of a traffic stop. Still, officers may ask questions of a driver, and ask the driver to perform field sobriety tests. With some exceptions, courts do not consider this to be a “custodial interrogation” within the meaning of Miranda. Police are therefore not obligated to advise people of their Miranda rights at this point, placing the burden of invoking the right against self-incrimination on the driver.
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Coffee BeansIn 2014, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill, A2280, mandating dashboard video cameras for all new police vehicles used in traffic enforcement. The Governor signed the bill into law in September of that year, but as of mid-2016, the widespread use of dashboard cameras is unlikely to become a reality anytime soon. Dashboard camera evidence can be crucial for defendants charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) and other traffic offenses. The fate of the new law, however, comes down to money. A2280 provided funding for the mandate by increasing the $100 surcharge imposed in DWI cases by $25. After a New Jersey township complained that the additional surcharge was insufficient to cover the cost of the cameras, a governmental body known as the Council on Local Mandates (CLM) ruled that A2280 is an “unfunded mandate,” and therefore it is in violation of the New Jersey Constitution. The ruling also invalidated the increased surcharge imposed by A2280. The CLM left open the possibility of reviving the bill, most likely through new legislation.

Under New Jersey’s DWI statute, prosecutors can prove that a defendant was intoxicated or impaired in multiple ways. A blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher creates a presumption of intoxication, but even without this kind of evidence, a police officer can testify about their observations of the defendant. They frequently testify about a defendant’s appearance, stating that they looked “glassy-eyed” or “flushed,” their behavior, and their performance on field sobriety tests. This type of evidence essentially asks municipal court judges to decide who is more credible between a police officer and a DWI suspect. Video evidence of a traffic stop, while not always helpful to the defense, can directly contradict an officer’s testimony about a defendant or even challenge the justification for the traffic stop itself.

The original sponsor of A2280 was motivated by his own experience with a traffic stop that led to charges of DWI and refusal to submit to breath testing. Video footage from a dashboard camera in the officer’s patrol car differed significantly from the officer’s description of what occurred during the stop. The charges were dismissed, and the officer eventually faced criminal charges, including perjury. A2280 requires municipal police departments to equip all newly acquired vehicles that are “primarily used for traffic stops” with dashboard cameras. It adds an additional $25 to the DWI surcharge to fund the acquisition of the cameras.

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HolidaysThe holidays are a time of happiness and celebration for many people, but law enforcement officials are aware of the risks to public safety potentially posed by too much celebration. Police departments throughout New Jersey have announced increased enforcement of state laws regarding driving while intoxicated (DWI) during the holiday season. They have many means of doing this at their disposal, from traffic stops based on a reasonable suspicion that a person might be impaired by alcohol, to roadside checkpoints intended to check drivers for DWI. While the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limits the ability of police to stop and search people, and those limits have just as much force during the holidays as at any other time of the year, courts have allowed police to operate DWI checkpoints subject to certain requirements. We encourage everyone to enjoy the holidays and be safe, and to know their rights under state and federal laws.

New Jersey’s DWI statute makes it a motor vehicle offense to operate a vehicle “while under the influence of intoxicating liquor,” or with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent. This means that police can arrest someone on suspicion of DWI, and prosecutors can pursue charges, even without evidence of a BAC above the legal limit. To do so, they must present other types of evidence, such as testimony from an officer who observed a defendant at or near the time of their arrest and can describe behavior, appearance, or other conditions indicative of intoxication.

The holiday season often features parties in bars and other public venues and in people’s homes. Police across the state are participating in the two-week “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over 2016 Year End Holiday Crackdown,” a program supported by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety (DHTS). Local law enforcement agencies may obtain grants from the DHTS to assist in implementing the campaign, which includes “saturation patrols” by police and increased use of roadside DWI checkpoints.

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High Beam IndicatorThe Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits police from detaining a person temporarily, or stopping a vehicle on the road, without reasonable suspicion of some sort of unlawful activity. Courts are obligated to throw out charges originating from a traffic stop, such as driving while intoxicated (DWI), if the stop violated the driver’s constitutional rights. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently considered whether this state’s high-beam statute can justify a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment. It ruled in State v. Scriven that the stop was unconstitutional because the officer did not witness an actual violation of the high-beam statute.

The “exclusionary rule” requires courts to suppress evidence obtained by police in violation of a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. An officer who initiated a traffic stop must justify the stop based on a suspected traffic offense, such as erratic driving or running a stop sign. Without reasonable suspicion, the state cannot use any evidence obtained as a result of that stop. This might include the officer’s testimony about the driver’s appearance or behavior, field sobriety tests, and Alcotest results.

Although the exclusionary rule is a powerful tool for protecting a defendant’s civil rights when police overstep their authority, courts have identified some exceptions. One of these, the “community care exception,” allows police to search private property without a warrant, as well as possibly detain a person or stop a vehicle, in the course of protecting the public from a hazardous situation. A hypothetical scenario might involve a police officer stopping a vehicle to warn about a hazardous road condition and then arresting the driver based on observations that lead the officer to suspect DWI.

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Kanorado exitThe Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people “against unreasonable searches and seizures” by police, usually by requiring them to obtain a warrant from a judge before conducting a search of a person or their property. Courts have identified some exceptions to the warrant requirement, including the “automobile exception.” Police can search a vehicle without a warrant if they have “probable cause” to believe a search will turn up evidence of criminal activity. This exception may be important to a driving while intoxicated (DWI) defense, since most cases begin with a traffic stop. A federal appellate court recently considered whether a driver’s residence in a state with legal marijuana gave police probable cause to search his vehicle. The court ruled in Vasquez v. Lewis that the search violated the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Police must have “reasonable suspicion” of a criminal or motor vehicle offense before they may stop a vehicle on the road. This is a lesser standard than “probable cause.” Once police have stopped a vehicle, several exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s search warrant requirement come into play. The “plain-view rule” states that police can search or investigate anything that they can see from outside the vehicle. An open alcohol container in a cup holder, for example, could lead to a DWI investigation, even if the officer did not suspect DWI when they initiated the traffic stop.

The automobile exception allows a much more thorough search of a vehicle, but an officer must be able to establish that evidence known to them at the time of the search gave them a good-faith belief that they would find contraband or evidence of a crime. Most exceptions to the search warrant requirement involve areas in which people do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” or situations in which the risk of losing evidence makes obtaining a warrant impractical. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that both types of exceptions apply to motor vehicles, beginning with Carroll v. United States in 1925. Cars are not as private as homes, the court found, and their mobility presents an inherent risk of losing evidence.

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rainy highwayIn any prosecution by the state, it is critically important that a defendant be able to review any and all evidence that could be used against them in court. A long series of court rulings has established defendants’ right to this evidence. Unfortunately, prosecutors and police are not always forthcoming with evidence. In driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases, footage from police dashboard cameras, also known as mobile video recorders (MVRs), can sometimes help a defendant rebut the state’s charges. According to a ruling issued by the New Jersey Appellate Division in late June 2016, Paff v. Ocean Cnty. Prosecutor’s Office, these videos are part of the public record. This ruling could be a double-edged sword for DWI defendants, however. They might be able to access their own MVR footage more easily, but so can anyone else.

The common-law right of access, as described by the U.S. Supreme Court in Nixon v. Warner Comms. in 1978, holds that the public has “a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents.” Statutes like the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) also address public access to government records. This is different from a defendant’s right to information specific to their case. In some situations, the government may have a legitimate reason to withhold information from the general public that they must provide to a defendant. Since the Ocean County ruling expands the public’s right to obtain information from the government, it is reasonable to conclude that it can benefit people charged with DWI and other offenses.

The downside to the ruling is that making MVR footage available to the public has implications for DWI defendants’ privacy rights. Footage of a traffic stop, potentially including field sobriety tests, could cause embarrassment or other negative outcomes. This is especially worrisome if video footage is released while a DWI case is still pending, or after an acquittal or a dismissal of charges.

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treesThe Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits most warrantless searches by police, requiring them first to obtain a warrant from a judge or magistrate. Various exceptions to this rule apply during traffic stops, when police can act on anything they see, hear, or smell that gives them a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. This could result in a traffic stop for suspected driving while intoxicated (DWI) leading to more serious charges, or a stop for a lesser traffic violation leading to a suspicion of DWI. A defendant in a New Jersey DWI case, State v. Mercado, challenged the search of his vehicle, which police claimed was justified under the “protective sweep” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

The protective sweep exception is largely based on another Fourth Amendment exception known as the plain-view doctrine, which holds that police do not violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights if they investigate something that they can easily see from a reasonable vantage point. If an officer stops a car because of something other than DWI, for example, the officer may be able to investigate possible DWI if an open alcohol container is visible inside the car. This also applies to something an officer can smell, such as the odor of alcohol or marijuana.

A 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Michigan v. Long, addressed the plain-view doctrine in a traffic stop for suspected DWI. The officers searched the defendant’s vehicle because they “had reason to believe that the vehicle contained weapons potentially dangerous to the officers.” Instead, they found marijuana. The Supreme Court identified the protective sweep exception more specifically in 1990 in Maryland v. Buie. It held that an officer may search the immediate area when they have a specific reason to believe that another person is present who could pose a threat to themselves or others.

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Scheinwerfermann (original uploader at English Wikipedia) (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia CommonsThe Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures means that police officers cannot stop a person while driving without reasonable suspicion of an offense, and they cannot search or arrest someone without probable cause. A person charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) and other offenses also has the right to confront their accuser, usually the arresting officer, under the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause. A DWI defendant recently appealed the denial of her motion to suppress in State v. Ciernak, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence leading to her traffic stop. She further argued that the officer lacked justification to stop her under the “community caretaking function,” an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s search-and-seizure provisions.

Court decisions at the state and federal levels have held that field sobriety tests and breath tests in DWI cases require probable cause, such as if an officer detects an odor of alcohol or other indicators of intoxication, if they observe the vehicle driving erratically, or if the driver admits to consuming alcohol. This standard is lessened, however, under the “community caretaking function,” which holds that police are permitted to stop vehicles in the absence of suspicion of any specific traffic or criminal offense, if they reasonably believe there is a danger to public safety.

The U.S. Supreme Court articulated the elements of the community caretaking function in 1973 in Cady v. Dombrowski, which involved the search of a vehicle involved in a traffic accident. The search yielded illegal firearms, and the court upheld the constitutionality of the search. The New Jersey Appellate Division has affirmed the community caretaking function in situations like driving slowly on the shoulder of a highway with the left turn signal activated for approximately one-tenth of a mile (State v. Goetaski, 1986), and remaining stopped at a green traffic light for 23 seconds (State v. Hancock, 2014). The New Jersey Supreme Court, however, held that the community caretaking function does not justify entering a person’s home without consent to conduct a welfare check without “an objectively reasonable basis to believe that there is an emergency” (State v. Vargas, 2013).

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