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Illegal DWI Traffic Stop Defenses in New Jersey

Anthony Vecchio, New Jersey DWI Defense lawyer explains how lack of reasonable suspicion can lead to an illegal DWI traffic stop.

Evidence Excluded Without Reasonable Suspicion

If you believe the police did not have a valid reason to stop your car, call to speak with an experienced defense lawyer to talk about how an illegal traffic stop may offer defense in your case. This is a key issue in New Jersey DWI defense. If police did not have reasonable suspicion to stop your car, any evidence they later collected may be excluded at trial. This may include the results of standard field sobriety testing and breath samples, Breathalyzer, and Alcotest results.

Legal vs Illegal DWI Traffic Stop

It is well settled that law enforcement officials may stop motor vehicles when they have a reasonable suspicion that either the vehicle or occupant is subject to seizure for violation of the law. Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 664 (1973). In State v. Murphy, 238 N.J.Super. 546, 553 (App. Div. 1990), New Jersey courts followed the Prouse holding that a police officer’s observation of a motor vehicle offense is sufficient to justify a stop. See also, State v. Martinez, 260 N.J. Super. 75 (App. Div. 1992)(allowing stop of a vehicle operated in a suspicious but not violative manner); State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470-71 (1999)(quoting State v. Smith, 206 N.J. Super. 370, 380 (App.Div. 1997)(in order to justify a motor vehicle stop, the officer need only have “an articulable and reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a motor vehicle violation.”).

Reasonable Suspicion in DWI Cases

The New Jersey Supreme Court defines reasonable suspicion as, “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the person stopped of criminal activity.” State v. Stovall 170 N.J. 346, 356 (2002). The test for whether there was a reasonable and articulable suspicion is whether, based on the totality of the circumstances, the officer had a specific and objective basis for suspecting that particular individual. United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 441, 417 (1981).

“The Supreme Court has held that an automobile stop is. . . subject to the constitutional imperative that it not be unreasonable under the circumstances. In evaluating reasonableness of a particular traffic stop, it is imperative that the facts be judged against an objective standard: would the facts available to the officer at the moment of the seizure or the search warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the action taken was appropriate?” United States v. Hill, 131 F.3rd 1056, 1059 (D.C. Cir. 1997). The constitutional reasonableness of a traffic stop does not depend on the actual motivations of the individual officers involved; rather, it depends on whether the circumstances, viewed objectively, justify the action taken. Ibid.

The fact that a defendant is later found not guilty does not denigrate the propriety of the initial stop so long as it is based upon a reasonable articulable suspicion that a motor vehicle violation has occurred. State v. Cohen, 347 N.J.Super. 375, 380 (App.Div.2002)(officer had reasonable suspicion to stop an out of state motor vehicle with darkly-tinted windows, even though out of state vehicles were exempt from the statute, and found the driver was driving under the influence). See also, State v. Williamson, 138 N.J. 302, 304 (1994)(Drugs found in auto not suppressed where officer who stopped vehicle for changing lanes without signaling need prove only that the police have a reasonable suspicion to stop the car, not that it could convict the driver of the motor-vehicle offense); State v. Murphy, 238 N.J. Super. 546, 553-54 (App.Div.1990)(Trooper had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the vehicle’s license plate was displayed in violation of the statute, and drugs found in vehicle are admissible even if driver were not found guilty of the motor vehicle violation).

In each of those cases, the officer entertained a reasonable belief that a traffic law had been violated. In each, the only dispute was whether the officer’s factual observations established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt of the traffic offense, not whether the officer correctly interpreted the statute.

An officer who misunderstood the meaning of a statute, did not have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that defendant had committed a motor vehicle offense. State v. Puzio, 379 N.J. Super. 378 (App. Div. 2005). In Puzio, Officer Pelligrino stopped the defendant because he did not have a placard on the right side of his commercially registered vehicle that displayed the name and address of his business, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-46a. Id. at 380. Once stopped, the defendant was arrested for driving while intoxicated, and appealed his conviction. Ibid.

The Court concluded that the stop was unwarranted because the officer misunderstood the meaning of the statute, in that; it did not apply to the defendant’s vehicle even though it was commercially registered.

The Court held that there was no objectively reasonable basis for the stop. Id. at 384. The Court went on to say, “in order to justify a motor vehicle stop, the officer need only have an articulable and reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a motor vehicle violation.” Id. at 381. “In this case, if N.J.S.A. 39:4-46 means what Pelligrino believed it meant, he clearly had an articulable and reasonable basis for the stop.”

Were you Stopped Illegally for DWI? Our New Jersey DWI Defense Lawyer Can Help

There are many defenses to a New Jersey DWI charge. It is a common misconception that DWI arrests can’t be beat. Contact my office so we can discuss how to defend your DWI case.

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