Justifying a Traffic Stop in New Jersey DWI Cases, Part 1: Reasonable Suspicion

Defending against a charge of alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey requires careful evaluation of every part of the state’s case, which is why it is often wise to retain a dedicated New Jersey DWI lawyer if you are in such a situation. The state has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on every element of the offense of DWI. The job of a defendant and their counsel is to challenge the state’s evidence and legal arguments. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits police from conducting searches and seizures without a warrant, but the courts have identified numerous exceptions. A police officer may be able to justify a traffic stop if they can demonstrate “reasonable suspicion” of unlawful activity by the driver. In early 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the state’s reasonable suspicion argument in State v. Sutherland. The court held that the officer’s suspicion was not “objectively reasonable.” It remanded the case to the Appellate Division to resolve the state’s alternative argument that the stop was justified by the “community caretaking” doctrine.

New Jersey’s DWI statute broadly prohibits the operation of a motor vehicle “while under the influence” of alcohol or drugs. It allows the state to prove impairment by alcohol in two ways: with evidence that a defendant’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was 0.08 percent or higher, or with other evidence indicating impairment. The statute identifies various penalties based on factors like a defendant’s BAC and their number of prior convictions. It does not make any mention of the manner in which police come to suspect that a driver is impaired.

A police officer may briefly detain a person, such as in a traffic stop, without a warrant if they have reasonable suspicion of criminal or other unlawful activity. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this in Terry v. Ohio in 1968. The court held that an officer’s suspicion must be based on “specific reasonable inferences…in light of his experience,” and not on an “inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or ‘hunch.’” In the context of a DWI case, an officer might testify that they witnessed a defendant driving erratically. A traffic stop that leads to a DWI charge does not have to begin with an officer’s suspicion of DWI. A police officer could stop a driver for another suspected traffic violation, such as running a red light, and then discover evidence of DWI. This becomes complicated when an officer is mistaken about traffic law.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Heien v. North Carolina that a police officer did not violate a driver’s Fourth Amendment rights when he pulled the defendant over for having a broken tail light, even though that was not a violation of state law. The court held that the officer’s mistake was reasonable, and “that reasonable mistakes of law, like those of fact, [can] justify certificates of probable cause.”

The Sutherland case also involved a mistake of law. The arresting officer pulled the defendant over for a non-operational taillight, believing that it violated state law. The trial court suppressed the evidence from the motor vehicle stop on the grounds that the officer was mistaken about the law. The Appellate Division reversed this ruling, citing Heien. The New Jersey Supreme Court reinstated the municipal court’s ruling. It found that the statutes in question were not ambiguous, and that the officer’s mistake therefore was not reasonable.

DWI attorney Evan Levow advocates for the rights of people who have been charged with alleged DWI in New Jersey municipal courts. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our knowledgeable and experienced team, please contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717.

More Blog Posts:

Probable Cause and Traffic Stops in New Jersey DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, October 20, 2017

Driver’s Admission to Drinking Was Enough Probable Cause for Police to Order Breath Testing, According to New Jersey Court, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 8, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Limits Police Authority During Traffic Stops, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 9, 2015