Appellate Court Decisions for DWI Cases in New Jersey
Two recent decisions from our Appellate Courts have identified important issues for defendants in DWI cases in New Jersey. State v. Bernokeits decided by the Appellate Division and State v. Regis decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court in December of 2011, raise important issues for DWI defendants in many cases.
State v. Bernokeits
Bernokeits finally recognizes a constitutional requirement that involves every driver instructed by police to perform field sobriety tests after roadside stops. These tests are designed to determine probable cause of a driver’s possible intoxication.
Bernokeits recognizes a standard that limits the authority of a police officer to require a drive to perform these tests, in the course of a DWI investigation. The Court in Bernokeits held that if Field Sobriety Tests are administered and if the driver’s attorney challenges these tests by way of a written Motion To Suppress, the State must demonstrate by a preponderance of evidence, the existence of a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that the driver was intoxicated, before these tests can be administered. The consequences of this principle are profound, as the State’s failure to meet this standard will result in suppression of evidence of intoxication subsequently acquired. This means that the State will be barred from using evidence of possible intoxication in its case against the Defendant. The exclusion of this evidence would prevent the State from meeting its burden of ultimately proving the Defendant’s guilt.
State v. Regis
State v. Regis decided by our Supreme Court, involves interpretation of N.J. Statute 39:4-88(b) which requires motor vehicles to be operated within a lane of traffic “as nearly as practicable”. This case is important because of another Constitutional principle which must be raised in a Defendant’s Suppression Motion. No less than the United States Supreme Court determined in an earlier decision, Delaware v. Prouse, that police officers lack the Constitutional authority to perform motor vehicle stops, without first establishing a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” that some law has been violated. Stated otherwise, before police can cause a motor vehicle stop, there must be objective evidence that some motor vehicle law has been violated.
Regis is important because many drivers charged with DWI, are stopped because of a claim that the vehicle’s wheels went outside the lines of the lane in which it was traveling. Courts for years have tried to understand the statutory requirement that a vehicle maintain a lane “as nearly as practicable”. To many, this language suggests that vehicles which leave a lane momentarily because of the road conditions, topography, weather conditions or some other reason, would not be violating the law. As some Courts have held, the statute does not require a driver maintain a “perfect vector” down the center of a lane and that only reasonable, not perfect operation is required.
While the Supreme Court’s opinion in Regis addresses this question, it’s direction is not clear. By referring to “feasable” as an equivalent to “practicable”, the Court has left some question as to what type of motor vehicle operation justifies police intervention. Further interpretation of this statute will hopefully provide further guidance as to this issue.