Anyone who follows the evening news or reads the local police blotters understands that alcohol and motor vehicles are never a good mix in the eyes of the police and our court system. Whether a driver has just left a celebratory party with close relatives, driving away from a bar after having a drink with friends, or returning home with one’s spouse after an evening of dinner and dancing, if alcohol is in your system when a police officer pulls you over for a traffic violation, there may be consequences.
Of course, we see these kinds of scenarios play out every day all around our state. In fact, as New Jersey DWI-DUI defense attorneys, we are never surprised at the frequency and volume of drunk driving arrests that occur in the Garden State on a monthly basis. Whether in the Monmouth County area, over in Hudson or Sussex counties, or down in Cape May County, the likelihood of being arrested and charged with an alcohol-related offense is high if the driver himself is too.
Now, most people would tend to assume that motorists get pulled over for being drunk, but the fact of the matter is the police can only stop a vehicle if they observe a traffic violation take place. Roving police patrols, especially prevalent during certain holidays, are usually looking for telltale signs of inebriation, though simply assuming a driver is drunk is not sufficient to justify a traffic stop on its own. But once a moving violation or vehicle equipment violation has been spotted, the odds of being stopped go up considerably.
Another tool that the police use here in New Jersey is the so-called drunk driving roadblock. Also known as sobriety checkpoints, these generally late-night DWI checkpoints can net a number of drunk drivers whenever they are erected in a “trouble area.” By trouble, we mean an area that has been identified by the police as having a higher-than-normal incidence of drunken driving arrests.
Although the number of arrests for DWI, DUI and drug DWI can be disappointingly low, at least from the standpoint of the officers running the roadblocks, it has been suggested that the use of sobriety checkpoints can reduce alcohol-related crashes by approximately 20 percent. In fact, certain news organizations have researched the data and come to the conclusion that checkpoints have been linked to a reduction in DWI-related fatalities as well.
From the above information alone, it can be assumed that DWI-DUI roadblocks will be with us here in New Jersey for some time to come. The state Supreme Court has already weighed in on the legality of these roadblocks and, in general, they are considered lawful. However, controversy still swirls around the use of this method to catch drunk drivers. The best that one can do, if ever you are flagged down at one of these DWI checkpoints, is to be courteous, polite and maintain your composure. Meanwhile, here are a few other suggestions on what we might call “Roadblock Etiquette”:
- Remain calm and don’t argue with the police officers. It has been said that one of the major mistakes that drivers make while stopped at DUI roadblocks is to underestimate their chances of being arrested. The officers in charge will likely question a driver to determine if that person has been drinking. If asked a “yes” or “no” question, answer using a “yes” or a “no.” In other words, avoid any unsolicited explanations. Further clarification will often be requested, but don’t offer information before it is asked of you.
- Remember your rights. Should a driver feel that a patrolman is probing for an admission of guilt, it is not against the law to exercise one’s right to remain silent. It should come as no surprise that the answers that motorists give at DWI roadblocks can and likely will be used against them later in court should an arrest be made. As such, some drivers may decide to tell the policeman that he is exercising his Constitutional right to remain silent.
- Think hard about agreeing to a breathalyzer or field sobriety testing at a DWI checkpoint. While it is true that the implied consent rule legally requires a driver to submit to a breath test at police headquarters, it doesn’t require a motorist to submit to one on the scene at a sobriety roadblock. Drivers may politely decline a breathalyzer if they choose and have it done at the police department itself. The same can be said for balance testing and other of the standardized field sobriety tests established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Regardless of the circumstances, anyone who is arrested and charged with drunken driving as a result of being stopped at a roadside DWI checkpoint should consult with an experienced DWI-DUI defense lawyer. A skilled attorney with experience in drunk driving law should be able to determine the legality of the checkpoint itself, as well as other evidence that could lead to a drunk driving or DUI conviction.
Naturally, the debate over the constitutionality of these DWI checkpoints will continue for some time to come. Much of the argument against sobriety checkpoints centers on the question of unreasonable search and seizure without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. As most any trial lawyer understands, the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution are important and should be respected.