Articles Posted in Motor Vehicle Stop

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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“Distracted driving,” which typically refers to texting or talking on the phone while driving, is the subject of a wave of new laws around the country. While the focus is often on mobile phones, “distracted driving” laws could cover a much wider range of activities. This is of concern to us as DWI attorneys because any activity that a police officer reasonably believes to be a distraction could be grounds for a traffic stop, and all of the potential consequences of a traffic stop. No states have passed laws addressing specific distractions besides cell phones, although legislators in New Jersey have tried.

According to the state Attorney General, distracted driving was a factor in about 1.4 million automobile accidents in New Jersey between 2004 and 2013. This is nearly half of the three million accidents that occurred during this time period. Distracted driving was not the cause of all of those accidents, just a factor, but lawmakers have taken note and are taking a hard line on the subject. The Attorney General identifies activities that could constitute distractions while driving, including eating, checking one’s hair or makeup, using a GPS device or reading a map, and even adjusting the stereo. Any of these could, in theory, be grounds for a traffic stop.

In Georgia, police issued a citation to a man in mid-January 2015 for the alleged offense of “eating while driving.” The officer reportedly told the man that he had followed him for two miles after he purchased a hamburger from a fast-food restaurant, and that the officer had witnessed him eating the entire time. The officer wrote a ticket under the state’s distracted driving law, which does not specifically mention eating. Aside from cell phones and other mobile communications devices, Georgia law only requires drivers to “exercise due care.” Continue reading

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in December 2014 that could have a significant effect on DWI cases in New Jersey. The case involves two fundamental principles of the American criminal justice system. First, law enforcement officers must have reasonable suspicion of a criminal or traffic offense in order to make a traffic stop. Second, it is not a defense to prosecution for a person to claim that he or she did not know something was illegal. What happens, however, when a police officer makes a mistake of law? In Heien v. North Carolina, a defendant argued that a traffic stop that resulted in drug charges was unreasonable because the officer incorrectly thought having only one working brake light was a traffic violation. The court held that the officer did not violate the defendant’s rights, despite not knowing the law, since the mistake was “reasonable.”

An officer pulled the defendant’s vehicle over in April 29, 2009 at about 8:00 a.m. He testified that he saw the vehicle pass on the highway and thought the driver looked “very stiff and nervous.” After following the vehicle for several miles, he noticed that it had only one working brake light. He pulled the vehicle over, believing this to be a traffic violation. The defendant, who owned the vehicle, consented to a search, and the officer found drugs.

The defendant pleaded guilty to drug charges after the trial court denied his motion to suppress the results of the search, reserving the right to appeal. A state appellate court reversed the conviction, finding that the traffic stop was unreasonable because the driver had not broken any traffic laws. The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed that ruling, and the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. Continue reading

The holiday season, starting with Halloween and continuing through Christmas and other winter holidays, always brings stories of unusual events that go “viral” on the internet, including strange or embarrassing DWI arrests. This unwanted, if usually only temporary, fame is yet another consequence of a DWI arrest that happens regardless of the outcome in court. A DWI attorney’s job is not only to represent his or her clients in court, but to help them minimize the impact of an alleged offense on their lives while the court case is pending. Several news stories from the past year, including one in New Jersey, fell into this category. Our intention in discussing them is not to embarrass or make light of anyone, but rather to illustrate some important points of New Jersey DWI law that people need to know at any time of year.

The most recent story occurred in late December 2014, when police in Riverdale, New Jersey claim that they found a man asleep in a vehicle who was dressed as the popular “Elf on the Shelf” holiday toy. Although the vehicle was parked, its engine was reportedly running, the headlights were on, and the stereo was playing loudly. The officers alleged that they noticed a strong odor of alcohol on the man’s breath. They administered a field sobriety test and took him to the station for breath testing. He was issued a summons for DWI and released to a family member.

DWI cases usually begin with a traffic stop based on a police officer’s reasonable suspicion that the driver is impaired. Under New Jersey law, however, officers do not actually have to witness the person driving. In this case, state law enforcement guidelines for DWI cases say that police could infer that the man had been operating the vehicle because of its location in a parking lot, or the fact that its engine was running and the headlights were on. These observations may support probable cause for an arrest, but prosecutors must still prove all of the elements of DWI to obtain a conviction. Continue reading

An arrest for alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey has serious consequences, even before charges are filed or the case goes to trial. A driver could face license suspension and other administrative penalties that are largely separate from the court procedures for a DWI case. He or she also may face a charge of refusal to submit to chemical testing, and in some cases courts have held that simply not blowing hard enough into a breathalyzer machine could support a refusal conviction. Certain other criminal charges are common in alleged DWI cases, some of which could significantly increase the penalties that a prosecutor might seek in court.

Other Traffic Charges

Many, possibly most, DWI cases begin when a police officer pulls a driver over. An officer must have reasonable suspicion that a traffic offense has occurred for any evidence collected during the traffic stop to be admissible in court. If the officer can prove that he or she witnessed the driver violate a traffic law, such as by speeding, running a red light, or changing lanes without signaling, the stop is probably supported by reasonable suspicion. An officer also may pull over a car if it appeared that the driver was impaired based on how he or she was driving. Once the stop is underway, other evidence, like the “smell of alcohol” so often cited in court, may support a DWI charge.

Since a DWI arrest often originates with another alleged traffic violation, it stands to reason that DWI cases often involve other traffic charges. Many of these are minor offenses, like failing to use a turn signal or avoiding a traffic light, while others, such as driving with a suspended license, are relatively more serious. Even if a driver can prove that he or she was not drinking, he or she could face charges for careless or reckless driving. Continue reading

The New Jersey Supreme Court, in affirming the reversal of a DWI conviction, cautioned municipal courts throughout the state to keep pretrial suppression hearings separate from actual trials, noting that the two types of proceedings have substantially different purposes. The decision in State v. Gibson, issued on September 16, 2014, involved a conviction by a municipal court based solely on evidence presented at a pre-trial hearing on the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence, instead of at trial. The Appellate Division reversed the conviction and entered a judgment of acquittal. The Supreme Court affirmed the reversal but not the acquittal. It remanded the case for a new trial in municipal court.

A Winslow Township patrolman pulled the defendant over in November 2007 after the defendant allegedly passed his vehicle at a “high rate of speed” and changed lanes without signaling. The defendant reportedly agreed to field sobriety tests, but resisted arrest. He was charged with DWI, reckless driving, and failure to signal. A grand jury indicted him on several counts, including third-degree aggravated assault on a police officer. He pleaded guilty to the first count of the indictment in December 2008, and the rest of the counts were dismissed. The court remanded the motor vehicle charges, including the DWI charge, to the municipal court.

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained in the traffic stop. The municipal court held a hearing on the motion in May 2010, where the patrolman testified regarding the alleged circumstances of the traffic stop. At a continuation of the hearing that October, the defense introduced the video of the stop and claimed that it contradicted the patrolman’s testimony. The court denied the motion to suppress, ruling that the patrolman had reasonable suspicion for the stop and probable cause for the arrest. It immediately moved on to the trial on the merits. Continue reading

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