The 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.