Mercer County Legal Defense News: NJ Appeals Court Rules Probable Cause Not Required for Sobriety Testing

As many people already understand, when it comes to being arrested for drunken driving in the Garden State, an officer typically will have stopped the accused on the basis of a moving violation or some other traffic or motor vehicle offense. As New Jersey DWI defense attorneys, we get questions all of the time from potential clients regarding what is or isn’t a legitimate drunken driving stop. Technically, there really aren’t (or shouldn’t be) traffic stops based solely on an officer’s suspicion that a driver is intoxicated behind the wheel.

Instead, New Jersey law requires that a police officer must have a valid reason for pulling a motorist over to the side of the road and initiating a traffic stop. But here things might seem to get a little murky. While an officer is not allowed to stop someone just on suspicion of impaired driving — a hunch, one might call it — that same officer can stop the very same driver for not maintaining his or her lane, making an illegal turn or perhaps observing that the motorist’s vehicle has a burnt-out tail lamp.

Once stopped for a legitimate traffic offense, the door is opened to other potential charges after the officer has a chance to observe the driver, passengers and vehicle interior up close. After that, it’s now the patrolman’s task to decide of the driver made those errors because of inattention, negligent action or impaired mental and physical capabilities, among other possible causes.

If a police officer detects evidence of alcohol or prescription drug use, he or she may request the driver to get out of the car or truck and perform a variety of standardized field sobriety tests. This could lead to a trip over to police headquarters, a breathalyzer test and possible drunken driving charges.

One other kind of question, which the New Jersey Court of Appeals recently clarified is whether or not a police officer needs probably cause before requesting a driver to perform one or more of the standardized field sobriety tests. According to news reports, the Court ruled (State of New Jersey v. Thomas Bernokeits, Jr.) that law enforcement officers do not require probable cause before conducting a roadside sobriety test. In stating this, the Court added that patrolmen only need what is called “reasonable suspicion” in order to request a motorist submit to one of several standardized field sobriety tests.

Based on reports, the Court said that it had no evidence of any state authority that imposes a probable cause requirement prior to the administration of a roadside sobriety test. According to news articles, the Appellate Division of the NJ Superior Court wrote: “On the contrary, our courts have consistently, albeit without extended discussion, upheld such routine, standardized testing on the basis of a reasonable, articulable suspicion of driver intoxication.”

The original case involved an early-morning traffic stop in Seaside Heights back in the summer of 2010. Based on court records, a motorist was stopped by a patrolman ostensibly because the man’s car had an excessively noisy muffler and windows that were tinted completely black. According to police reports, the officer in charge testified that he smelled alcohol on the driver’s breath, after which he asked the man if h had been drinking. The driver reportedly replied that he had consumed a beer, but the officer stated that he “sensed” the odor was more like hard liquor.

The officer ordered the man to perform a number of roadside sobriety tests and was, eventually, charged with DWI. Following the lodging of charges, the defendant moved to have the results of that sobriety test suppressed; this motion was initially denied the local municipal court judge and subsequently upheld by the Law Division in Superior Court.

On further appeal, the defendant entered a conditional guilty plea to the drunken driving charge, but stated that the officer’s order to submit to a field sobriety test(s) was equivalent to that of a full-blown arrest. The defendant and his defense attorney apparently attempted to argue that the officer needed probable cause order the field sobriety testing.

The Appellate Division disagreed with the defendant, saying that the officer in charge was only required to have a reasonable articulable suspicion… to expand the scope of his initial traffic stop… and detain the defendant for field sobriety testing.

Ultimately, this ruling provides New Jersey police officers with the right to investigate further even when they are not quite certain what all the facts are. Simultaneously, it does continue to protect motorists from patrolmen who are simply investigating based on nothing more than a hunch.

No probable cause needed for sobriety test: N.J. appeals court, ThomsonReuters.com, December 23, 2011