Probable Cause and Traffic Stops in New Jersey DWI Cases

The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution protects numerous rights against abuses and injustice in criminal cases. Most of these constitutional rights apply in New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases, including the Fourth Amendment’s protection of people’s right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Identifying violations of these rights is a major component of defending against DWI charges. Most DWI cases begin with a traffic stop, in which police pull a vehicle over on the road. Police must have a “reasonable suspicion” of some sort of wrongdoing for a traffic stop to be legal. Challenging the legality of a stop can lead to the exclusion of most or all of the state’s evidence and the dismissal of the case.

According to the Fourth Amendment, police must obtain a warrant before conducting a search or seizing a person or their property. That warrant must be supported by probable cause to believe that doing so will produce evidence of a crime or another offense. The U.S. Supreme Court has held, however, that police may briefly detain a person to investigate possible criminal activity when they do not have probable cause, if they have a “reasonable suspicion” of something unlawful. This type of stop is known as a “Terry stop,” after the Supreme Court’s decision in Terry v. Ohio in 1968.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that traffic stops are “seizures” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and they are therefore subject to the restrictions established by Terry. A 1984 Supreme Court decision, Berkemer v. McCarty, found that Terry applies to traffic stops for suspected traffic offenses, including DWI. It also held that people are entitled to the protections of the Fifth Amendment, including the rights described in Miranda v. Arizona, if they are taken into custody during a traffic stop.

In 2007, the court ruled in Brendlin v. California that Terry applies to both drivers and passengers when police conduct a traffic stop. Justice Souter noted in that case that both the driver and any passengers were “seized from the moment [the driver’s] car came to a halt on the side of the road.” Justice Ginsberg offered a comprehensive review of decisions applying Terry to traffic stops in 2009’s Arizona v. Johnson.

If charges result from evidence obtained during a Terry stop, the state must produce evidence to support an officer’s reasonable suspicion at the time of the stop. In Terry, the Supreme Court described the evidentiary standard as “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts,” would make a reasonable person suspicious of criminal activity. If the state cannot meet this burden, the stop violates the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, and the court must suppress any evidence obtained as a result of the stop. In DWI cases, this might include nearly all of the evidence the state can offer.

If you have been charged in a New Jersey court with an alleged DWI, you should seek the assistance of a skilled and experienced defense advocate. DWI attorney Evan Levow has practiced in New Jersey for over 20 years. Contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team.

More Blog Posts:

New Jersey Law Enforcement Agencies Plan DWI Checkpoints for the Holidays, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 21, 2016

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

Police Cannot Search Vehicle Solely Because It Came from a State Where Marijuana Use is Legal, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, September 4, 2016

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