NJ Drunk Driving Defense Update: What Constitutes a Valid DWI Arrest?

We’ve discussed in prior postings the factors that lead to, and possibly precipitate, a drunken driving traffic stop. In actuality, the phrase DWI police stop is somewhat of a misnomer since a patrolman cannot, by law, base a traffic stop solely on a hunch or assumption that a motorist is intoxicated by alcohol or impaired by prescription drugs or some other controlled dangerous substance (CDS). On the contrary, an officer must have a valid and articulable reason — such as a moving violation or vehicle-related infraction — in order to legitimately pull a driver over. That aside, however, a traffic stop that develops into a DWI arrest involves a number of steps before drunk driving charges are pressed against a driver.

As experienced New Jersey trial attorneys with in-depth knowledge of drunk driving and drug DUI case law, our training and courtroom skill allow us to represent many individuals who have been accused of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence. As DWI lawyers, we often explain to potential clients that it is important to understand the basic factors that make up a good prosecutorial case for DWI or drug DUI; because, when it comes to arresting and charging a driver for intoxicated driving, the evidence collected at the time of the offense can make or break the state’s case.

Whether or not a DWI-DUI arrest is viewed by a judge as having been carried out properly depends on the totality of facts presented by the state when pursuing a conviction following a drunk driving stop and arrest. First and foremost, there needs to be actual evidence of inebriation or impairment, regardless of the type of charge, be it a DWI based on alcohol consumption, or a drug DUI due use of prescription medications, smoking of marijuana, or use of some other illegal substance. The degree of intoxication must also have been sufficient for the court to conclude that the driver was impaired to the point of being unable to safely operate his or her vehicle.

As for this previous point, one of the several important aspects of a DWI-DUI case pertains to proof that a driver was, in fact, under the Influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the traffic stop. This is critical for any prosecuting attorney’s case, which can hinge on the specific evidence collected by police at the roadside following the stop. From the standpoint of the defense, being able to show that a patrolman did not meet the standards required by the court to prove intoxication is vital to a successful defense.

A charge of driving while intoxicated must be supported with evidence of intoxication, which has been defined by the Supreme Court as a substantial “deterioration or diminution” of a driver’s mental faculties or physical capabilities due to an intoxicant such as liquor, or a narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit producing drug. The probable cause aspect of the DWI arrest can often be met, in part, by a policeman’s observations of the motorist. Plus, a prosecutor will offer as evidence the circumstances surrounding the original traffic stop — such as drifting repeatedly out of one’s lane or operating a car at night without lights.

By combining the circumstances of the initial police stop with the officer’s observations of the driver’s physical appearance — watery or bloodshot eyes are often held up as reasonable suspicion on the officer’s part to make arrest — the prosecution can attempt to paint a picture of a badly intoxicated person who was obviously operating his car or truck while impaired. However, an experienced drunken driving defense attorney quite frequently can provide alternative explanations for those observations of alleged intoxication. Citing a driver’s apparently red or bloodshot eyes, for instance, can result from a number of conditions such as fatigue, migraine headaches, and allergies, to name a few. By doing so, the defense can call into question the state’s argument for probable leading to the DWI arrest.

There are other potential bases for a DWI arrest. The may include physical and psychological tests not included in the standardized field sobriety tests use by patrolmen to establish probably cause for a drunk driving arrest. These can include asking the subject what time or day it is, reciting the alphabet, or counting backwards from a certain number. While impressive to the casual observer, these types of mental acuity tests can be unreliable due to a variety of factors, which is why it is important to enlist the help of a qualified DWI defense attorney if one is serious about fighting a drunk driving charge.