Many of our clients and potential clients express concern about a police officer’s justification for making a drunk driving stop. And rightly so, since portions of both the U.S. Constitution and that of the State of New Jersey have been written with the intent of protecting individuals from, among other things, unreasonable motor vehicle stops. As professional trial attorneys, we are dedicated to fighting for our clients’ rights and we know that the law does not allow the police to stop someone, nor subject them to a detention from free movement, unless the police have a legitimate reason for doing so.
When it comes to the reason for making a legitimate traffic stop that may or may not result in a DWI or drug DUI arrest, the law requires that a police office must have an “articulable and reasonable suspicion” that the subject, or driver in this case, has violated some article of the law. The standard that can be applied to this kind of a proper traffic stop may include first-hand observation of a motorist’s driving behavior, or it can be based on information phoned in or otherwise communicated to the police by a third party(s), such as information provided by other law enforcement entities in the way of motor vehicle look-up info, radio transmissions from roving patrols to be on the lookout for a certain vehicle, etc.
Sometimes we are asked if an anonymous tip from another driver or pedestrian is sufficient evidence on which to base a legal traffic stop. In short, an anonymous source can only be used if it is reliable or based on something that can only be established through corroboration of facts. What this means, typically, is that the officer must confirm certain facts alleged by the tipster before effecting the traffic stop. (Note that the only exception to this requirement is where the community caretaker function or a valid roadblock apply.)
With an articulable and reasonable suspicion that a violation of the law has taken place on the roadway, a municipal patrolman or state trooper is then free to make a proper motor vehicle stop. Many times, these incidents may be the result of an observed traffic offense, such as speeding, improper passing, failure to yield at a traffic light, failing to signal a lane change or turn, or any number of other infractions that a police office is able to see happen.
In some cases, a physical problem with the subject’s automobile, truck or motorcycle may result in a routine traffic stop if the problem is in violation of the state’s traffic laws. Inoperative headlamps, taillights, license plate light or signal lamps may trigger a police stop. Similarly, defective vehicle mechanical items that could affect the safety of the occupants of the subject’s vehicle, other motorists and passengers sharing the road, or pedestrians near the roadway on which the subject’s vehicle is traveling may also provide a valid reason for a stop.
Some drivers who are eventually arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated can make a police officer’s job rather easy by operating their vehicle with an obvious defect or other dangerous condition. We ran across one example of such a situation in a news article published a while back. According to that news item, officers from the Sparta, NJ, police department arrested a 35-year-old woman from Newark after they observed the driver’s vehicle running down the road without its headlights on a Saturday evening.
Police reports indicated that the arresting police officer was on a routine patrol a little before 10pm when he saw a westbound vehicle on Sparta Ave. operating without its headlamps. After pulling the vehicle over, the patrolman apparently believed that the driver was intoxicated. She was given several of the standardized field sobriety tests to perform, all of which she allegedly failed. The driver was subsequently taken into custody and delivered to Sparta police headquarters for a breathalyzer test.
According to news reports, the woman’s blood-alcohol content (BAC) registered at twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent. She was then charged with driving while intoxicated and careless driving, as well as failing to activate her vehicle’s headlamps. Her vehicle was impounded and she was eventually released to the care of a responsible adult.
Sparta Police Arrest Newark Resident For DWI, TheAlternativePress.com, March 24, 2013