New Jersey DWI Stop Was Based on “Community Caretaking” Exception, Court Rules

Many cases involving alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey begin with the stop of a vehicle by police. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and requires police to obtain a warrant before detaining a person or conducting a search. Courts have identified exceptions, which often apply in urgent situations where police cannot take time to go to a judge for a warrant. Other exceptions apply to routine functions that police are supposed to serve. The “community caretaker” exception, for example, allows police to detain someone briefly, without suspicion of criminal activity, if they believe the person needs assistance. Earlier this year, we were involved in a case before the New Jersey Appellate Division that addressed the community caretaker exception in a DWI case.

New Jersey’s DWI law allows the state to prove that a defendant was intoxicated by presenting evidence of blood alcohol content (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent, or with witness testimony, usually from police, about the defendant’s behavior and appearance. Before the state can introduce any of this evidence, they must demonstrate that the police had a legal justification for stopping the defendant in the first place.

Most traffic stops fall under an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio in 1968. Police can briefly detain a person if they have a reasonable belief that the person has committed or is committing an offense. A police officer can stop a vehicle based on suspicion of DWI if, for example, they observe a person driving erratically. The community caretaker exception, however, might allow police to stop a vehicle without such suspicion.

The U.S. Supreme Court first described the community caretaker exception in 1973 in Cady v. Dombrowski. That case involved the search of a police officer’s vehicle after a car accident, while the officer was in a coma. The purpose of the warrantless search was to locate his service revolver. The search revealed evidence of a crime, which the court allowed to stand despite the lack of a warrant.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has expanded the definition of the community caretaker exception. In 2016, it ruled that officers may stop a vehicle based on “an objectively reasonable” belief that a driver may need immediate help, “for the purpose of making a welfare check and rendering aid, if necessary.” It further held that “police do not have to wait until harm is caused…before acting.” At the same time, the court noted that this is a “narrow” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

In the Appellate Division case mentioned earlier, a police officer stopped the defendant’s vehicle as the defendant was exiting the parking lot of a convenience store. A store clerk had reportedly called the police, claiming that the defendant was acting strangely. The officer who made the stop testified that the defendant “appeared to be visibly upset” and “looked like she had been crying.” The officer claimed that the purpose of the stop was “to see if she was a domestic violence victim,” but he “eventually determined that she was under the influence.” The court allowed the warrantless stop under the community caretaker exception.

DWI attorney Evan Levow represents people who have been charged with alleged DWI in New Jersey municipal courts. He can help you understand your options and advocate for your rights. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our skilled and experienced team, please contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717.

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