New Jersey DWI Defense Update: Your Legal Rights Concerning Traffic Stops and Drunk Driving Arrests

It has been fairly well established that a patrolman’s actions when stopping a motorist on the highway are within the definitions laid out in the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which pertain to the meaning of “seizure.” Keeping this in mind, it is interesting that for quite some time there was more than a modicum of doubt as to what constituted a valid police stop, much less one that leads to the arrest and incarceration of an individual.

Any doubts regarding what was proper or legal seizure by the police during motor vehicle stops were essentially quelled following the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Delaware v. Prouse. In a nutshell, the majority held that police officers must, at the very least, have an articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist has violated some portion of a state’s traffic law or motor vehicle statutes. In addition to the frequently used “inability to maintain the lane” or “driving with a non-functioning brake light,” other justifications may include a suspicion that the motorist is not properly licensed or that the vehicle’s registration is expired.

Whatever the original reason for effecting a police stop, the state trooper or municipal cop must continue to meet the standards set by New Jersey legal statutes and other case law when conducting the stop. Time is an important consideration; this is because the law requires a patrolman to conduct the business of a routine traffic stop — whether or not it eventually leads to an eventual DWI arrest or drug DUI summons — in a reasonable amount of time. Though certainly not hard and fast, the time taken should not usually exceed that needed to obtain the motorist’s operator’s license and vehicle insurance credentials and to check those against the police department’s database of prior traffic offenses or other violations of the law.

When looking specifically at a routine police stop that turns into a drunken driving arrest, that aforementioned reasonable amount of time can expand to include additional steps — such as requiring the driver to exit the vehicle and perform several field sobriety tests — that may or may not lead the officer to conclude that the driver is intoxicated by drugs or alcohol. Because of this, the time required to effectuate the purpose of a traffic stop may change somewhat due to the evidence collected and observations made during the event. It is important to remember that, in general, a state trooper or municipal patrolman may not detain a motorist unnecessarily long without having probable cause for doing so.

If there is probable cause for carrying out a DWI-DUI arrest, and subsequent charges of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the question that frequently arises in the minds of many accused motorists is that regarding one’s Fifth Amendment rights; specifically the right to remain silent under the well-known and oft mentioned Miranda ruling. For those unfamiliar with this, the Miranda warning is the name of the formal notice that police in the U.S. are required to give criminal suspects taken into police custody prior to any interrogation.

The purpose of the Miranda warning is to help ensure that an accused individual is made aware of his or her rights under the U.S. Constitution, and to help them understand that they may invoke those rights any time during a police interview.

Miranda came about as a result of another landmark Supreme Court case, Miranda v. Arizona, back in 1966. In that case, the majority ruled that both exculpatory, as well as inculpatory statements made a a result of a police interrogation are admissible at trial only if the state can show that the suspect was informed of his or her right to consult with a lawyer prior to and at the time of questioning by law enforcement officers. This encompasses the right against self-incrimination when being questioned by a police officer.

As Garden State drunk driving defense lawyers, we have had many clients ask us whether or not a motorist accused of DWI or drug DUI is also covered by the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. This is a valid question, and in fact, the Supreme Court has established (in Berkemer v. McCarty) that anytime a patrolman wants to conduct a “custodial interrogation” of a motorist following a traffic stop, that officer must first inform the driver of his constitutional rights. However, there is essentially no requirement that the police must inform detained motorists of their specific Miranda rights unless (or until) the driver is actually placed under arrest.

It is critical to point out that while one has the right to remain silent, this is not necessarily an absolute protection. A qualified DWI-DUI defense attorney can explain this and many other legal points to a potential client; however, for now, understand that under certain in situations — such instances where a driver has been involved in a traffic wreck — that when a police officer asks questions of that individual, he or she has an affirmative duty to relate the facts of the incident to the patrolman. When and if a motorist is actually placed under arrest and taken into custody, the question of one’s Miranda rights becomes much more applicable.

Many experienced trial attorneys who have a background in drunk driving law can be of great help to a person accused of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence. If you have been stopped by the state police or a local patrolman, effective representation can mean the difference between winning or losing your DWI or drug DUI case. With the stiff fines and other monetary penalties awaiting those who are convicted of drunk driving, there is no good reason not to, at the very least, consult with a skilled attorney regarding one’s rights under the law.