“Reasonable Suspicion” in New Jersey DWI Cases

When the state charges a person with driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey, prosecutors have the burden of proving each element of the offense. This includes proving that police did not violate the defendant’s rights against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As a general rule, police must obtain a warrant in order to conduct a search, seize property, and make an arrest, but courts have identified many exceptions. In practice, police may conduct warrantless searches in certain situations. Courts have ruled that police may briefly detain a person without a warrant, and without the “probable cause” required to obtain a warrant, when they can demonstrate “reasonable suspicion” of some sort of wrongdoing. This is a lower standard than probable cause, and the distinction can be important in defending against DWI charges in New Jersey courts.

New Jersey’s DWI statute prohibits driving while under the influence of alcohol or other substances that are likely to impair a person’s ability to operate a motor vehicle. A defendant can challenge or dispute the evidence offered by the state, but they might also be able to challenge the constitutionality of the arrest itself. Many DWI cases begin with a traffic stop, when a police officer pulls a driver over on the road. If a police officer lacked a legal justification for the stop, the court could suppress any evidence obtained as a result of the stop, or dismiss the case altogether. A defendant must move to suppress evidence obtained in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Terry v. Ohio in 1968 that police may detain a person briefly based on the “reasonable suspicion” standard. These are commonly known as Terry stops. The case involved a person stopped and searched by the police while on foot, but the reasonable suspicion standard has also been applied to traffic stops.

In defining the “reasonable suspicion” standard for traffic stops, New Jersey courts have held that police may only stop a person’s vehicle if they can articulate specific facts that support a suspicion of a criminal or motor vehicle offense. This means that a police officer must be able to testify about specific observations that led them to suspect DWI or another offense, such as driving erratically or driving with expired registration. If the officer cannot provide these facts, then the stop was illegal under the Fourth Amendment.

New Jersey courts have held that, once a police officer has stopped a vehicle based on reasonable suspicion, they may ask about matters that are not directly related to the reason for the stop. Any further investigation requires a showing of reasonable suspicion. If, for example, a police officer pulls someone over for running a stop sign, they may not investigate the driver for DWI unless they can show reasonable suspicion of that offense as well. Facts supporting this might include slurred speech or the odor of alcohol. Only then may the officer investigate further, such as by asking the driver to perform field sobriety tests. The officer may only make an arrest if this investigation leads to probable cause to suspect DWI.

If you are facing charges of alleged DWI in a New Jersey municipal court, DWI lawyer Evan Levow is available to answer your questions and discuss your legal rights and options. Please contact us today at (877) 593-1717 or online to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our experienced and knowledgeable team.