New Jersey DWI Defense Update: Drunk Driving Stops and a Driver’s Fifth Amendment Miranda Rights

As experienced trial lawyers and drunken driving defense attorneys, my colleagues and I often get questions from potential clients asking about courtroom procedure, state and federal law as it applies to DWI and drug DUI arrests or convictions, as well as how the police perform traffic stops that lead to a person being charged with a DWI or DUI in the Garden State. Having worked for years as a prosecuting attorney, I and several of my staff understand both sides of the coin in regard to handling drunk driving court cases.

One of the more important Constitutional-based questions that we hear from motorists who have been accused of operating a car, truck or motorcycle while under the influence of alcohol or doctor-prescribed medication is that regarding their rights vis-à-vis the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights. More specifically, how Fifth Amendment Miranda Rights fit into the framework of a roadside traffic stop, especially one that has led to a DWI arrest or DUI summons.

In general terms, the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals against the abuse of government authority. For all intents and purposes, a police officer is the embodiment of government authority, which means that the actions of municipal patrolmen and state troopers are governed, so to speak, by the restrictions laid out in the Fifth Amendment. For those unfamiliar with the specific wording of this Constitutional amendment, here is the text:

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

When considering the issue of Miranda Rights, individuals are provided the protection against self-incrimination, which includes the now famous phrase, “the right to remain silent.” In fact, the United States Supreme Court recognized years ago that many people accused of a legal offense may have a “reasonable fear of prosecution” while still being innocent of any wrongdoing. The privilege of remaining silent actually serves to protect innocent people who could possibly become legally entangled due to ambiguous circumstances.

In terms of traffic stops, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Berkemer v. McCarty that anytime a police officer chooses to conduct a “custodial interrogation” of a defendant, he or she must first inform that individual of his constitutional rights, which since 1966 includes the reading of the suspect’s Miranda rights. However, these rights do not apply until an officer actually places a driver or passenger under arrest.

It is important at this juncture to remind readers that they have a right to remain silent at all times, though this right is weighed against policy and is not always an absolute protection. As a common example, if a motorist is involved in a traffic collision, that driver has an affirmative duty to relate the incident to the police.

One of the other concerns that our clients sometimes have is in regard to DWI roadblocks, also known as drunk driving or sobriety checkpoints. We have described the legal grounds for these rather common DWI enforcement tools in other posts, however, when asked if these kinds of police activities are legal within the framework of the Constitution, the simple answer is usually, Yes. State law, as established in the New Jersey case of State v. Kirk, has for years upheld the reasonableness of these so-called DWI checkpoints.

As Garden State drunken driving defense attorneys, we usually remind clients that there have been instances where the legitimacy of a traffic stop leading to a drunk driving arrest may be challenged in court. Challenges can be made even more effective since more and more patrol cars are being equipped with video cameras that record the events of every traffic stop. In terms of evidence, police video footage can help an experienced drunk driving defense attorney to attack the prosecution’s claim of the probable cause.

In any event, a driver accused of DWI or drug DUI cannot easily know himself whether his case is winnable without the counsel of a qualified legal professional skilled in DWI law. If you or someone you know has been stopped for a drunken driving-related traffic offense, we highly recommend that you contact an experienced attorney to better understand your rights under the laws of this state and the U.S. Constitution. Since there is usually no charge for an initial consultation, it only makes sense to take advantage of the advice available before stepping foot into a courtroom.