New Jersey DWI Update: Judging the Validity of Police Stops that Lead to DWI Charges

As most anyone who has previously been charged with DUI must surely understand, the order of events preceding a DWI arrest is important when considering the approach to one’s defense. In addition to this, the basis for the initial traffic stop that led to the drunken driving charges is also critical to both the defense’s arguments, as well as that of the prosecution.

In the end, regardless of whether the ultimate offense is listed as driving under the influence of alcohol, impaired by prescription drugs, or possession of a CDS (controlled dangerous substance), the initial traffic stop must have been carried out properly and with a legitimate suspicion that a violation of traffic law had occurred.

As New Jersey DWI and drug DUI defense attorneys, our firm is dedicated to assisting individuals who have been accused of driving while intoxicated, as well as other civil and criminal offenses. Our legal staff understands the extreme importance of determining whether a DWI summons was issued based on a valid traffic stop or not.

Because the stopping of a motor vehicle by a patrolman essentially represents a “seizure” as interpreted within the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, there are ways in which an improperly conducted traffic stop can ruin the state’s DWI case against a motorist.

Although in the past there has often been some doubt surrounding what was or wasn’t a valid or legitimate traffic stop, the landmark Supreme Court case of Delaware v. Prouse narrowed the definition for the courts. As part of the ruling, the Court held that a law enforcement officer must have, at the very least, an articulable and reasonable suspicion that a traffic offense has taken place prior to making a roadside police stop.

This can include, but may not necessarily be limited to a suspicion that the individual operating the subject motor vehicle is possibly doing so without a valid driver’s license; as well as the possibility that the vehicle itself is not properly registered, or that an occupant riding within car, truck or motorcycle is subject to seizure himself for a violation of the law.

In addition, there are two rather popular reasons that a police officer or state trooper may choose to stop a motor vehicle. These are 1) a broken or faulty headlight, taillight, brake lamp, etc.; or 2) failure on the part of the driver to “maintain one’s lane.” What this means to most drivers, inebriated or not, is that if your vehicle has any non-working parking lamps, brake lights, turn signals or headlights a future police stop is more of an eventuality than not.

In cases of a faulty light, whether one receives a warning or a summons is usually up to the discretion of the officer, but it also opens the driver up to one-on-one scrutiny by the patrolman, which could mean a DWI summons depending on the circumstances. For drivers who appear to be struggling to maintain their lane, an officer will likely choose to stop the vehicle. If that patrolman comes upon one or more things during the traffic stop that lead him to believe the driver has been drinking alcohol or taking drugs, an arrest could be forthcoming.

An arrest most often can come based on what legal experts in the field refer to as the “plain view exception” or “plain smell doctrine.” Under the plain view exception, if an officer sees an alcoholic beverage container inside the vehicle, or if he detects the “odor” of alcohol on the driver’s breath, the odds of being taken into custody and asked to take a breathalyzer test can be quite high.

It is important to point out that once a traffic stop has been initiated, the detaining officer is obligated under the law to conduct his business in a reasonable amount of time. This mainly includes obtaining the motorist’s driving credentials and running them through the police department’s database to look for prior traffic offenses or other violations of the law. When considering a drunken driving stop, should evidence be discovered pointing to potential drunkenness, the officer does have the right to question the driver regarding alcohol-related offenses, though the patrolman should not detain the individual for an unnecessarily long time without probable cause.