NJ Appeals Panel Finds Princeton Police Officer Made Unlawful DWI Arrest of University Student

According to news articles, a Princeton police officer was found to have broken the law in the fall of 2012 when he reportedly arrested a student for drunken driving near the campus of Princeton University in Mercer County without showing probably cause for his actions. The decision, which came from a New Jersey appeals panel, found fault with the patrolman’s actions prior to arresting the university student. Based on news reports, after the officer observed a driver resting his head on the steering wheel of his parked vehicle, he opened the driver door without cause.

News articles reported that the October 2012 arrest began with Sgt. Steven Riccitello seeing a motor vehicle legally pull into a parking spot in a convenience store parking area. The officer then reportedly noticed that the driver put his head down and closed his eyes inside his legally parked vehicle. One of the three appeals judges reviewing the case stated that seeing such activity was not sufficient grounds for the patrolman to open the car door and essentially search the interior of the car.

This particular drunk driving case was based on an emerging legal theory known as the “community-caretaking doctrine.” This legal theory essentially allows police officers to take certain kinds of action, without the need for a warrant, if they believe that an individual is in need of assistance or that someone’s property is in “immediate danger.” According to court records, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office said that the patrolman had opened the car door because he was inquiring into the driver’s “wellbeing” and not, as the defendant’s attorney apparently suggested, that the officer believed that the motorist was perhaps intoxicated or otherwise impaired.

Although the student was found to be legally drunk following the erroneous arrest, the Princeton Municipal Court judge threw out the state’s evidence of the man’s intoxication and instead ruled that the officer had no legal basis to open the car door and, in doing so, overstepped his authority. On first appeal, the New Jersey Superior Court overturned the lower court’s ruling and allowed the evidence.

However, based on the news reports following the latest decision, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the Superior Court’s ruling because, as it stated in its decision, there was no reason to believe that the officer approached the vehicle out of concern for the driver, but only due to the patrolman’s own suspicions that the young man was intoxicated behind the wheel. The appeals panel found that the policeman did not have probable cause to legally open the driver’s door and investigate the scene.

At the very most, the appeals judges felt that the officer should have “knocked on the car window” and engaged the driver in a conversation to establish whether or not the student had the odor of alcohol on his breath, or if the man was simply too fatigued to drive safely on the roadway. As most any DWI defense lawyer knows, a better approach for the officer would have been to ask the driver to produce his driver’s license and insurance information, or to request the motorist to step out of the car in order to observe whether or not the man was unsteady on his feet. But that did not occur in this case.

The appeals panel stated in its ruling that the prosecution could not invoke the community-caretaking doctrine as a means to convert the officer’s unconstitutional investigatory actions into a harmless attempt to confirm the status of the driver’s health or wellbeing. Although the ruling from the appeals panel only reaffirms that initial municipal court judge’s actions of disallowing the evidence collected after the illegal search, the defendant’s attorney believed that without any proof of intoxication, his client would likely be cleared of the charges.

It is interesting to note that a spokesperson for the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office said that it was still considering another appeal. Whatever the eventual outcome, it is clear that had the defendant not retained counsel for his defense, that the outcome may have been much more sudden and possibly permanent. Considering the stiff fines and other costs of a DWI conviction, there are certainly very good reasons to contact a qualified drunk driving defense attorney when a driver feels he has been unjustly accused of any driving offense.

Princeton officer broke law during DWI investigation, N.J. appeals panel finds; NJ.com; December 18, 2013 at 4:51 PM, updated December 19, 2013

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