NJ Legal Defense Update: Understanding Drunk Driving Arrests Occurring at Sobriety Roadblocks

Understanding the circumstances that can lead to a drunken driving arrest can be useful for motorists who may find themselves in such a DWI-related traffic scenario. By knowing what happens in the case of a sobriety roadblock, also known as a drunk driving checkpoint, may help some individuals prepare for the subsequent steps leading to a potential DWI arrest.

As a New Jersey DWI defense lawyer serving residents of Monmouth, Union, Somerset and Hudson County, as well as other parts of the Garden State, I know that knowledge is power. Where the law is concerned, this is doubly so especially where a drunk driving arrest or summons is concerned. Regardless of the reason for a DWI arrest — be it excessive alcohol consumption, a bad reaction to prescription medication (drug DUI), or illegal drug or marijuana use — being pulled over by a New Jersey state trooper or municipal police officer can be the first step of a costly and potentially damaging drunken driving conviction.

The fairness of sobriety roadblocks has been argued for many years now. Numerous clients question the use of these checkpoints as a means of charging motorists with driving under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicating substances. The reaction of many people caught at a roadside sobriety checkpoint is not surprising given the seemingly random nature of this kind of law enforcement tool.

Because of this, and not unexpectedly, the state of New Jersey has rather technical procedures in place that safeguard against unreasonable detention and seizure stemming from these kinds of DWI roadblocks. From a legal standpoint, the constitutionality of police roadblocks was addressed in a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1979.

Known as Delaware v. Prouse, the Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional to stop and detain a driver absent articulable suspicion that a driver is unlicensed, that the automobile he or she is operating is unregistered, or that the vehicle or one of its occupants is otherwise subject due to a violation of law (for example, if the car or truck is not compliant with certain traffic safety regulations or a passenger riding in the vehicle has an outstanding warrant).

The issue of roadblocks was revisited per New Jersey law in State v. Kirk, in which the court held that temporary roadblocks erected by police were unconstitutional absent certain safeguards, such as identified procedures for ensuring supervisory control of checkpoints and warnings to motorist of an impending roadblock. In State v. Moskal back in 1991, the court concluded that a sobriety checkpoint is valid provided that the location of the so-called DWI roadblock is appropriately chosen based on the historical arrest rates in that particular area, and that public safety and awareness would be promoted by the operation of said roadblock.

Furthermore, the court in Moskal concluded, there should be participation in command and supervision, and a public notice of the checkpoint be published to provide motorists with notice of the coming operation of that drunken driving checkpoint.

At these kinds of roadblocks, it is quite common for police officers to request drivers to perform so-called “field sobriety tests,” which are an important tool used to determine possible inebriation. The failure of a motorist to pass one or more of these tests can be one of several pieces of evidence that the state can present as proof that a driver was, in fact, impaired by alcohol consumption, drug or marijuana use or the taking of prescription medication.