Sussex County, NJ, DWI Law Update: Sparta Township Drunk Driving Arrest Procedures Under Fire

A lawsuit filed in Newark Federal Court has pointed out some potentially serious problems with the policies at the Sparta Township Police Department, according to news reports. The suit, filed by two Newton, NJ, attorneys was prompted by their own 2008 arrest for driving while intoxicated in the Sussex County municipality.

As a New Jersey DWI defense lawyer, I know how strict certain police agencies’ policies can be regarding drunk driving violations. Similarly, there are some municipalities that have questionable tactics, which can cause problems for the prosecuting attorneys in those cities and towns. Being a former prosecutor myself, I know the ins and outs of the court system when it comes to drunk driving cases, all of which helps me to provide an aggressive defense to my clients.

In the case of the Sparta suit, court records indicate that the attorneys allege Sparta police “routinely rely upon false pretexts to improperly stop, falsely charge, and overcharge motorists of alleged infractions of the Motor Vehicle And Traffic Laws.” That’s a pretty specific accusation and something that definitely matches what is being called a major civil rights case against the township of Sparta. Essentially, the suit is challenging the constitutionality of the practices and policies of the Sparta police department.

The suit stems from a traffic stop on April 11, 2008. Reportedly Kevin Kelly and Megan Ward had attended an event at the Lake Mohawk Country Club, after which they were seen arguing in the parking lot by an off-duty Blairstown police officer. That officer phoned Sparta police to report a possible domestic dispute and then informed dispatch the two seemed fine because they drove off together on West Shore Trail.

Based on reports, Sparta police were dispatched to the scene and then followed the attorney’s vehicle, with Ward at the wheel and Kelly as the passenger. Despite there being no overt traffic violations — as recorded by the police car video — the officers still stopped and questioned the two occupants.

Ward was asked to step out of the vehicle and perform five sobriety tests. The officers made the determination she was impaired and arrested her. Kelly was also arrested as the presumed owner of the car driven by an impaired driver.

Following two years of court appearances, the charges against Kelly were dismissed, Ward’s careless driving charge was dismissed, and a DWI conviction against Ward was overturned on appeal. According to news reports, Morris County Superior Court Judge Thomas V. Manahan said the testimony of the arresting officer was inconsistent with evidence from the DVD recording of the events.

The lawsuit alleges that “Sparta police have fundamental constitutional problems with their written policies, specifically their DWI policies.” The suit further states that “SPD’s DWI/DUI detection training program was grossly deficient,” saying that arresting officer Snyder was, “a junior officer who had completed his probationary training period only eight months prior to April 11, 2008, completed the NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) certified police training program for recognition of intoxication only after he arrested the plaintiffs.”

Although the municipality and the police department disagree with the accusation and will likely fight vigorously, the result of the suit may be quite telling and could make for some interesting New Jersey case law in the future.

Police procedures spark federal suit, StrausNews.com, April 15, 2010