Justifying a Traffic Stop in New Jersey DWI Cases, Part 2: Community Caretakers

Prosecutions for driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey often begin with a traffic stop. A police officer might pull a driver over based on a specific suspicion of DWI, or they might pull them over for another reason and then notice signs of possible impairment by drugs or alcohol. In either case, police must have “reasonable suspicion” of unlawful activity before initiating a traffic stop. The “reasonable suspicion” requirement is an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. New Jersey prosecutors recently tried to justify a traffic stop that led to a DWI case under the “community caretaker” doctrine, another exception to the warrant requirement, in State v. Sutherland. The New Jersey Supreme Court had previously rejected prosecutors’ reasonable suspicion argument. On remand, the Appellate Division rejected the community caretaker argument as well. This can be a complex area of law, so it may be worthwhile to reach out to a New Jersey DWI lawyer if you have questions.

Under New Jersey law, it is a traffic offense to drive “while under the influence” of drugs or alcohol. The state can prove that a defendant was legally impaired through various means, including eyewitness testimony by the arresting officers, other officers, and “drug recognition experts.” Prosecutors can also introduce evidence of blood alcohol content (BAC) at or above the “legal limit” of 0.08 percent. Defending against a DWI charge often involves challenging the state’s evidence of impairment, but it may also be possible to challenge the justification for the traffic stop itself.

Brief detentions of individuals by police, based on reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity, are often known as “Terry stops,” after the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision Terry v. Ohio. Five years later, the court decided Cady v. Dombrowski, which held that police do not violate the Fourth Amendment when they find evidence of criminal activity while engaging in certain “community caretaking functions.” This refers to police activities that have no relation to “the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.”

The Cady case involved the warrantless search of a police officer’s vehicle. The officer was in a coma following a car accident. Other officers searched his vehicle to look for his service revolver, which was unaccounted for, and found evidence of criminal activity. The court held that this did not violate the Fourth Amendment, because securing a missing service weapon was a legitimate “community caretaker function.” The New Jersey Supreme Court has adopted this doctrine in decisions like 2004’s State v. Diloreto.

A police officer pulled over the defendant in Sutherland based on a mistaken belief that his nonfunctioning taillight violated state law. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop. Prosecutors had also raised the community caretaker exception. The court remanded the case to the Appellate Division, since the lower courts had never addressed this claim.

In rejecting the community caretaker argument, the Appellate Division reviewed past cases involving similar claims. It found that it had allowed the community caretaker exception in cases where individuals were driving “in an unusual manner that would arouse concern about [their] welfare or the mechanical fitness of [their] vehicle,” or when “operation of [their] vehicle presented a public hazard.” The court found no such circumstances in the present case, finding instead that the stop was based solely on a misunderstanding of state law.

If you are facing charges of alleged DWI in New Jersey, DWI lawyer Evan Levow can advocate for your rights and guide you through the court process. Please contact us online or at (877) 593-1717 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how our experienced and knowledgeable team can help you.

More Blog Posts:

Use of High Beams Does Not Justify Traffic Stop, According to New Jersey Supreme Court, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, September 29, 2016

“Protective Sweep” Exception Allowed Police to Search New Jersey DWI Suspect’s Car, According to Court, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, May 16, 2016

New Jersey DWI Defendant Challenges Officer’s Justification for Traffic Stop, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 24, 2016