Articles Posted in Motor Vehicle Stop

The 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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The 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.

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New Jersey police arrested a man in late October for suspected driving while intoxicated (DWI), after the vehicle he was allegedly driving collided with another vehicle. A traffic stop is perhaps considered the usual way a DWI arrest occurs, but it is not the only way. Police can detain a person on suspicion of DWI through any legal means of establishing probable cause, including random stops for the purpose of deterring DWI. New Jersey courts have held that an arresting officer does not have to witness a person actually driving to have probable cause to suspect DWI. This series looks at the various grounds for a DWI arrest.


The recent story involves an arrest that occurred around midnight on Halloween. According to news reports, a vehicle collided with a police cruiser, causing the cruiser to go onto a concrete embankment and hit a utility pole. Failing to avoid an accident can, by itself, be a traffic offense under New Jersey law. In this case, however, police also suspected the person alleged to have been driving the vehicle of DWI.

Suspicion of DWI often arises from physical signs of intoxication, such as the odor of alcohol or the presence of bloodshot eyes, and from a person’s behavior, such as slurred speech, lack of coordination, or swaying while standing. The driver was reportedly charged with DWI with an enhancement because the alleged incident occurred in a school zone, as well as refusal to submit to breath testing and failure to yield to an emergency vehicle.

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The most common conception of a DWI arrest in the popular imagination is, perhaps, one that takes place after an officer pulls over a car based on suspicion that the driver is intoxicated or otherwise impaired. This accounts for many DWI arrests, but it is by no means the only way a person could find themselves facing DWI charges. In this series of posts, we will review the various ways police may make an arrest for suspected DWI.

Traffic Stops on Suspicion of DWI

Police officers are legally authorized to stop a vehicle and question its driver if they have a reasonable suspicion that the person is in the process of committing a crime, has recently committed a crime, or is preparing to commit a crime in the near future. This is commonly known as a “Terry stop,” after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in Terry v. Ohio.

An officer can claim reasonable suspicion of DWI based on alleged indicators like the inability to stay in a lane of traffic, weaving between lanes of traffic, colliding with other vehicles or roadside objects, and generally erratic driving. It can even include overly cautious driving in some situations, although that could also merely be an indicator that the driver is transporting something fragile.

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The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a controversial ruling in late September 2015, State v. Witt, regarding the circumstances in which police can search a vehicle without a warrant during a traffic stop. After arresting the defendant on suspicion of driving while intoxicated (DWI), the arresting officer searched the vehicle and found a handgun. This resulted in a charge of unlawful possession of a firearm. The court found that the search was lawful, despite the lack of a warrant. This overturns the rule established by the court in 2009 in State v. Pena-Flores, sometimes also cited as State v. Fuller, which required “exigent circumstances” for warrantless vehicle searches. Federal case law allows warrantless vehicle searches, often merely with a showing of probable cause. This is commonly known as the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s search warrant requirement. The court stated that its ruling in Witt is bringing New Jersey in line with the federal standard.

The U.S. Supreme Court first identified an “automobile exception” in 1925 in Carroll v. United States, finding that the inherent mobility of a vehicle makes it impractical to require an officer to obtain a warrant before a search—by the time they got the warrant, the vehicle might be halfway to the state line. Courts have expanded the automobile exception in the 90 years since Carroll was decided. Prior to 2009, the general rule in New Jersey was established by the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 1981 decision in State v. Alston. That case held that the automobile exception allowed police to search a vehicle without a warrant both during a lawful traffic stop and after the arrest of the vehicle’s occupants, when there was no longer any risk of the vehicle being moved.

In Pena-Flores, the court noted that it has “never subscribed fully to the federal version of the automobile exception,” and it noted that many of the cases in which it applied the automobile exception actually involved exigent circumstances. A case decided on the same day as Alston, State v. Martin, involved a vehicle whose occupants, suspects in a bank robbery, had fled the scene but could “have returned at any moment to move the car or remove the car’s contents.” Waiting to obtain a warrant before searching the vehicle would have been impractical. The court crafted a three-part rule in Pena-Flores for warrantless vehicle searches:  (1) an unexpected traffic stop, (2) probable cause to suspect that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime or contraband, and (3) exigent circumstances rendering it impractical to wait for a warrant.

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Marijuana laws are undergoing reform all over the country. Numerous states allow medicinal marijuana use with a doctor’s prescription, and a handful of states have decriminalized it for recreational use. It remains illegal under federal law, however, and is only permitted for limited medicinal purposes in New Jersey under the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (CUMMA), which became law in 2010. A September 2015 ruling from the New Jersey Appellate Division, State v. Myers, held that the smell of marijuana may still serve as the basis for probable cause for an officer to conduct a search. The case did not specifically involve driving while intoxicated (DWI), but its holding affects DWI cases throughout the state.

According to the court’s ruling, a state trooper responded to a report of gunshots at about 1:00 a.m. in Cumberland County. The trooper testified that he observed three parked cars, one of which appeared to be occupied, next to a residence that was hosting a party. He approached that car and briefly spoke with the defendant, who was in the driver’s seat. He then went to the residence and spoke to the party host.

While the trooper was returning to his vehicle, he noticed that the defendant had moved his car to a nearby driveway. A woman was yelling at the defendant to move his vehicle. The trooper claimed that he found it “suspicious” that the defendant had moved his car, so he approached the vehicle again. He claimed that this time, he “detected the odor of burnt marijuana coming from the car.” He instructed the defendant and his two passengers to exit the car, and he placed all three under arrest. He conducted a “search incident to arrest” and found a small bag of marijuana and a handgun in the defendant’s jacket.

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In a New Jersey DWI case, a defendant may claim that a police officer made a mistake that affects the outcome of the case. A “mistake of law” might involve conduct that an officer incorrectly believes is against the law, while a “mistake of fact” could be an error or misconception that leads an officer to wrongly think a driver has committed an offense. Mistakes of law are more likely to help a defendant fighting a DWI charge, although the legal landscape has recently changed considerably. A New Jersey Appellate Division decision, State v. Fath, involved an alleged mistake of law by the arresting officer that required dismissal of the DWI charge. The court found that it was actually a mistake of fact and that the officer’s decision to stop the defendant’s vehicle was justified on other grounds.

The arresting officer testified that he was stopped at a red light, facing the defendant’s vehicle, when he saw her make a right turn on red in violation of a posted “no right turn on red” sign. He followed her and then claimed that he witnessed her “carelessly cross oncoming traffic in order to make a left-hand turn.” He pulled her over, and she was ultimately charged with DWI, careless driving, and “failing to observe a traffic signal prohibiting a turn on red.”

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the traffic stop. New Jersey traffic law requires drivers to obey all traffic control devices “placed in accordance with the provisions of this chapter.” Right turns on red are allowed “unless an official sign…prohibits the same.” The defendant produced a certification from the New Jersey Department of Transportation stating that it had failed to find any official approval of a “no right turn” sign at that intersection. In other words, she argued that the sign was not “an official sign” under New Jersey law, and it was therefore a mistake of law for the officer to stop her for making a right turn.

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A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, Rodriguez v. United States, establishes limits on police authority during traffic stops. The court ruled that an officer’s authority over the driver ends once the officer accomplishes the “mission” of the traffic stop, which in this specific case involved writing a warning ticket for a minor traffic violation. Anything that occurs after the “mission” is complete violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. Since many DWI cases begin with a traffic stop for a minor infraction, this ruling could have a significant impact. At the same time, it still allows police to conduct further investigations, such as field sobriety testing, if they can show probable cause to suspect DWI.

A police officer pulled the defendant over for driving on the shoulder of a highway. He questioned the defendant and his passenger, ran a criminal check on the defendant’s license, and issued a warning ticket. While he acknowledged that he had completed the purpose of the stop, he did not let the defendant go. Instead, he ordered the defendant and the passenger out of the vehicle and made two passes with a drug-sniffing dog. On the second pass, the dog alerted to something in the vehicle, which turned out to be methamphetamine.

The drug-sniff search prolonged the traffic stop for an additional seven or eight minutes after the officer wrote the ticket. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence from the search of his vehicle, arguing that the officer lacked probable cause. The trial court denied the motion, finding that, while the officer lacked probable cause to search for drugs, the seven- or eight-minute extension of the stop was a minimal intrusion on the defendant’s rights and was therefore permissible. The court of appeals affirmed this ruling.

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An individual who has made a name for himself publicizing the locations of police checkpoints in Southern California recently settled a wrongful arrest lawsuit against a California city. A police officer arrested him for alleged DWI, he claimed in his lawsuit, after he refused to submit to a field sobriety test. He maintained that he was not impaired, and that the officer had no probable cause to suspect that he was. While we as DWI attorneys would not necessarily encourage anyone to make a spectacle out of their assertion of their constitutional rights, this lawsuit demonstrates how police can infringe on the the rights of drivers during traffic stops, which can lead to dismissal of charges.

The plaintiff, using the name “Mr. Checkpoint,” operates a website that publishes the locations of police checkpoints, where officers stop vehicles at random to check for DWI. He makes this information available to people on the website, via the social media service Twitter, and through text message subscriptions. The practice is reportedly not popular with some law enforcement agencies, but L.A. Weekly noted in 2013 that making this information easily accessible encourages people who might otherwise drink and drive “to think about either staying home to party, finding a designated driver or calling a cab.”

The traffic stop that led to the lawsuit occurred in late 2011. He was pulled over in Santa Monica for allegedly making an illegal right turn. He recorded audio of this incident on his phone. The officer arrested him for DWI when he refused to perform a field sobriety test. He spent the night in jail, his car was impounded, and his dogs, who were in the backseat, were taken to the pound. He was able to retrieve the car and his dogs, and the prosecutors declined to file charges when blood test results showed no alcohol.

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DWI 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.

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