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Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause for NJ DUI Charges

June 29, 2017

Under the U.S. Constitution, we are protected from certain police actions. For instance, before you can be legally pulled over for a DWI, law enforcement must have what is called a reasonable suspicion that you committed a criminal or motor vehicle violation. To be further detained for sobriety testing, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that you may be undertake influence. To then be arrested, there must be probable cause that you were committing the crime of driving while impaired.

Reasonable Suspicion for a DWI Stop

If a law enforcement officer has a reasonable suspicion that you violated any motor vehicle or criminal law, you can be pulled over. What constitutes the types of behavior that could establish that?

Generally, the driving behaviors associated with driving under the influence include:

  • Swerving
  • Drifting out of the travel lane
  • Wrong-way driving
  • Speeding
  • Erratic driving
  • Running lights or stop signs
  • Being involved in collisions, among others

Should you be pulled over by police for any of these behaviors, you may be asked to take a breathalyzer test, asked to perform roadside sobriety tests, and questioned about alcohol consumption.

Did the Police Stop You Illegally?

There are cases in which a person is pulled over and then charged under a reasonable suspicion in a DWI arrest who was factually not in violation of any law. That person may have been subjected to an unlawful police stop. If you were driving safely, within the speed limits, and not violating any traffic law, no reasonable suspicion exists that legally justifies a police stop.

If you were pulled over for a traffic violation, the police may report that they had a reasonable suspicion of DUI or DWI because you slurred your words, had bloodshot eyes, or other similar findings. In fact, the sobriety testing used by police is for the purpose of gaining the higher level of probable cause of DWI to arrest and charge you. Many people are unaware that you are not required under New Jersey law to submit to roadside sobriety tests. You are however required to submit to a breath or blood test.

When are Police Allowed to do Sobriety Tests?

During an investigatory stop, an officer may require a driver to perform field sobriety tests if he has reasonable suspicion of driving under the influence.  Once a police officer makes you perform sobriety tests, a legitimate stop escalates into an “investigative detention.”

A motion to suppress can be based upon this issue alone. This is where a judge will have to determine whether the officer detaining you for sobriety tests was justified. A court will look at all the surrounding facts and circumstances.

Examples where Court Agreed With Police

In State v. Bernokeits, the reviewing court agreed that there was reasonable suspicion for sobriety testing. In that case, a driver was stopped late at night coming from a bar. The defendant said he had one beer. He also appeared nervous. The officer testified that the defendant had the “strong odor of hard liquor” on his breath.

In State v. Adubato, the reviewing court also decided that field sobriety tests were justified. In that case, the driver admitted he had been drinking at a bar. The arresting officer smelled alcohol on the defendant’s breath. The defendant’s speech was slurred. His eyes were bloodshot and watery.

Example where Court Agreed With Defendant

In State v. Lord, the court’s decision went the other way. In that case, the officer was on patrol when he saw the defendant’s car swerving. The officer turned on his dashboard camera. He then followed the defendant’s car for a few minutes. The defendant denied drinking. The officer said that the defendant’s “eyes were bloodshot and watery” and that his face was “flushed.”  

On cross-examination, the officer agreed that the defendant did not slur his words. The officer also said that the defendant did not have difficulty producing his documents. This is commonly cited fact to support reasonable suspicion of a driver being under the influence. Importantly, the defendant did not smell of alcohol at this time.   Based on these facts, the court found that there was an insufficient basis for the officer to conduct sobriety tests.  

Probable Cause to Arrest for DUI

New Jersey state law N.J.S.A.39:5-25 states: “A law enforcement officer may arrest without a warrant any person who the officer has probable cause to believe has operated a motor vehicle [while intoxicated].”

Probable cause can be found when the arresting officer has a well-founded suspicion or belief of guilt. This is a lower standard that what is needed to convict for DUI. However, it is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion. Probable cause determinations are made largely on common sense. They are made by judges on a case by case basis and are extremely fact sensitive.

Get Help with Your New Jersey DWI Charge

No matter what occurred in your case, there is little doubt that having a DWI lawyer to defend you can make all the difference in the final outcome. If you were arrested and charged with DWI or DUI anywhere in New Jersey, I can help you. With several offices across New Jersey, I urge you to connect with me immediately for help. Your case deserves a full review. The issues surrounding probable cause and reasonable suspicion are only two of the possible legal issues that could allow you to avoid conviction. There are more and I know them all. Call us today for help.

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