Many cases involving alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey begin with the stop of a vehicle by police. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and requires police to obtain a warrant before detaining a person or conducting a search. Courts have identified exceptions, which often apply in urgent situations where police cannot take time to go to a judge for a warrant. Other exceptions apply to routine functions that police are supposed to serve. The “community caretaker” exception, for example, allows police to detain someone briefly, without suspicion of criminal activity, if they believe the person needs assistance. Earlier this year, we were involved in a case before the New Jersey Appellate Division that addressed the community caretaker exception in a DWI case.
New Jersey’s DWI law allows the state to prove that a defendant was intoxicated by presenting evidence of blood alcohol content (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent, or with witness testimony, usually from police, about the defendant’s behavior and appearance. Before the state can introduce any of this evidence, they must demonstrate that the police had a legal justification for stopping the defendant in the first place.
Most traffic stops fall under an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio in 1968. Police can briefly detain a person if they have a reasonable belief that the person has committed or is committing an offense. A police officer can stop a vehicle based on suspicion of DWI if, for example, they observe a person driving erratically. The community caretaker exception, however, might allow police to stop a vehicle without such suspicion.