NJ Appellate Court Upholds DWI Conviction against Woman Who Claimed Police Had Insufficient Cause

An important part of a DWI arrest and conviction is proper police procedure. Before a law enforcement officer can stop a vehicle and its driver for drunk driving, there must be sufficient cause for the traffic stop to legally occur in the first place. This is why many drunken driving arrests happen following a seemingly routine traffic stop, such as an improper lane change, running a stop sign, or speeding.

As a New Jersey DWI defense lawyer and former municipal prosecutor, I understand the circumstances that can lead to an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol or prescription drugs (also known as drug DWI or drug DUI). Because the police need to show sufficient cause for a traffic stop, this is an important element in any DWI prosecution or drunk driving defense.

A recent appellate court decision upheld a lower court ruling against a woman who was accused of driving while intoxicated in Florham Park, NJ, back in the summer of 2007. According to court records, Marylou Panza had appealed her drunken driving conviction andrefusing a mandatory chemical test on the grounds that she had been stopped without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

On July 21 of that year, the defendant was attending a local “movie night” in Florham Parka when a police officer assigned to crowd control observed Panza walking off balance and swaying at about 8pm. The same officer saw her again just before 10pm after being told that there was trouble at a popcorn stand. When the officer arrived, everyone on line pointed to Panza, who reportedly smelled of alcohol and had glassy bloodshot eyes.

Seeing the defendant again around 10:30pm, the officer suspected that she might be planning to drive with a child apparently in her care, so he called another officer to the scene to monitor her. When that officer observed Panza get into her car and drive off, he followed her and pulled her over in the next street.

According to police reports, the officer detected the smell of alcohol and observed Panza’s glassy eyes. He asked her to perform the finger dexterity sobriety test, which she passed. She failed the one leg stand and walk and turn tests, however, so the officer arrested her on suspicion of DWI. She refused the Alcotest breath testing device three times at the police station.

Following her DWI conviction and refusal of the breath test, Panza appealed her conviction because the police did not have adequate grounds to stop her — and therefore the evidence obtained from the stop should have been thrown out.

The key point here is that a police officer may stop a motor vehicle without violating a person’s 4th Amendment rights if that officer has an “articulable and reasonable suspicion” of a violation of law by the driver or a passenger (Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 [1979]). This is a lower standard than “probable cause” which is required to make an arrest, yet still requires specific objective facts that would lead to the conclusion that the individual in question has broken a particular law.

Unfortunately for Ms. Panza, the appellate court found that the first officer’s observations that Ms. Panza was walking off balance, that she smelled of alcohol, and that her eyes eyes were glassy were specific facts that reasonably led to the conclusion that she was intoxicated.

The court also acknowledged that the arresting officer was entitled to rely on the first officer’s recitation of these facts in making the stop, and taken together with his own observations that she was driving made it reasonable to stop her. Her performance on the field sobriety tests was sufficient basis for the arrest for DWI. The Appellate Division thus upheld the conviction and affirmed the conviction, along with Ms. Panza’s sentence and fines.