New Jersey DWI Defendant Challenges Officer’s Justification for Traffic 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).

An officer responding to a 9-1-1 call initiated the traffic stop of the defendant in Ciernak. The caller, according to the court’s opinion, gave a description of the defendant’s car and stated that the driver was “obviously drunk” based on the way they were driving. A dispatcher relayed this information to the officer, who spotted a vehicle matching that description that “was driving very slowly, braking frequently, and was tilted to the right as a result of a flat front passenger tire.” The officer stated that he followed the defendant because he believed it was “unsafe for this car to be on the roadway.” He stopped behind the defendant in her driveway, at which time she reportedly “put her car into reverse and backed into his vehicle.”

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the traffic stop. The motion was denied. On appeal, she argued that the 9-1-1 caller did not provide enough information to impart “an unmistakable sense that he witnessed an ongoing offense,” that the evidence presented was not credible, and that the community caretaking function did not justify the stop. Not surprisingly, the court ruled against her and affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.

If you are facing a charge of alleged DWI in New Jersey, a knowledgeable and experienced DWI lawyer can help you understand your rights, guide you through the court system, and defend you against the state’s charges. We have dedicated our entire practice at Levow DWI Law, P.C. to representing people’s rights in DWI cases. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team, contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717.

More Blog Posts:

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

Grounds for Post-Conviction Relief in New Jersey DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 14, 2015

New Jersey Supreme Court Reverses Its Own Rule on Warrantless Car Searches, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, October 31, 2015

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