Advanced Patrol Car Electronics and Instant Access to Statewide Motor Vehicle Databases Give Police an Edge

Back in what some of us might call the good ol’ days, having an out-of-date license plate tag or being tardy in making an auto insurance payment was a secret that could mostly be kept to oneself, at least until a driver broke a traffic law right in front of a cop. But that’s hardly the case anymore. These days, the information age can quickly catch up to those procrastinating motorists and other drivers for whom the calendar is merely a seasonal guidepost. For those who might not worry so much about driving their vehicle while possibly intoxicated, whether they know it or not, Big Brother is watching.

As we’ve explained in the past, New Jersey state law defines when it is legal for a police officer to stop a motorist on the roadway, after which a drunk driving summons may be forthcoming depending on the officer’s suspicions and observations of the driver. But having a hunch that a motorist may be inebriated behind the wheel of his or her vehicle is not sufficient legal grounds in the Garden State for a patrolman to stop a vehicle. Acting on the suspicion that an individual is impaired by alcohol or prescription drugs (drug DUI) should only come into play following a legitimate traffic stop.

But what does it take to cause a municipal policeman or a New Jersey state trooper to decide that a driver is in violation of one or more traffic laws? Simple observation can result in a routine police stop if the officer in charge sees an obvious violation, such as an illegal U-turn, failure to yield at a stop sign, even cutting through a parking lot to avoid waiting at an intersection. These and many other scenarios are all typical ways in which New Jersey drivers are constantly getting into hot water with the police.

It’s only after that initial traffic stop that an arrest for driving while intoxicated can come into play. But as experienced DWI-DUI defense lawyers, my legal team understands that the police do have other ways in which to stop a driver for less than obvious violations. Take for instance our earlier suggestion that an expired vehicle registration is now a fairly common cause of numerous traffic stops here in New Jersey.

With the ability to tap into online records while on patrol in a police cruiser, municipal cops and state troopers have near unlimited access to information that decades ago would have taken hours to sort through. Using in-vehicle wireless modems, New Jersey law enforcement professionals can simply type a car, truck or motorcycle license number into their mobile computer terminals to get a quick picture of whether a vehicle is being operated without proper registration or if the owner may have outstanding warrants.

These in-car terminals allow patrolmen to access Division of Motor Vehicle registration, insurance and driver’s license data almost instantaneously on the move. In fact, some police cars currently in use are equipped with sensors that automatically read the license plates of passing motor vehicles and then alert the officer if the credentials associated with that plate are not in order.

It is becoming more and more common for motorists to be stopped by police not for the typical reason of a traffic infraction, but based on a random computer lookup performed by a patrolman. It can be surprising that so many vehicles (or their drivers) that have invalid credentials are stopped as a consequence of this new kind of random license plate check. The ease with which a traffic stop can be effected is probably why so many police departments around the state have purchased or are considering purchasing these automatic scan sensors for their department’s patrol cars.

For anyone who wonders about the legality of such traffic stops, New Jersey police officers do, in fact, have the authority (under State v. Donis) to conduct random license plate-look ups. Whether the intent is to check into the status of the owner’s driver’s license, determine if a vehicle is stolen, or look up the status of that vehicle’s registration, the precedent is there and arrests have been made based on nothing more than a curiosity about a particular vehicle’s history.

Some of the more common issues that result in possible drunk driving, drug DUI or CDS possession can include the following:
— Expired vehicle registration — Plates registered to a different vehicle — Owner’s driving privileges suspended or revoked — Suspended registration due to lapse or cancellation of insurance
Surely there is a personal liability risk to operating a motor vehicle with an invalid registration, expired license plates, lapsed auto insurance, or when one’s driver’s license has been suspended; but nowadays there is an added threat of being stopped and possibly arrested for impaired driving simply because of a paperwork problem. Being exposed to potential arrest just because one drives in the vicinity of a patrol car is something that our grandparents never had to deal with; But as experienced DWI defense attorneys, we’re ready to help those motorists who find themselves caught up in circumstances only those living in the 21st century may have to deal with.