Reasonable suspicion and drunk driving

In New Jersey, law enforcement generally needs a warrant to make an arrest, seize property or conduct a search. But there are exceptions to the rule.

Court ruling regarding stops

The courts say an individual can be briefly detained without a warrant or probable cause to obtain one. But the officer(s) must evidence that there is “reasonable suspicion” for wrongdoing.

The condition sets a lower standard than probable cause. It also has a significant impact on how law enforcement manages drunk driving.

“Reasonable suspicion”

New Jersey courts allow a stop and hold of a driver under certain conditions. They include:

  • An accident
  • Caused property damage
  • Driving too slow
  • Engaging in an unsafe lane change
  • Erratic driving
  • Reckless driving
  • Speeding

Law enforcement can also act if they spot any of the following:

  • Expired, obstructed or no license plate
  • Improper equipment
  • Illegal tinting
  • Malfunctioning or broken head- or display lights
  • Visual defect

Under the Fourth Amendment, if officers cannot prove conditions meet “reasonable suspicion,” the stop is illegal.

What to do if you’re stopped

Here are standard rules of thumb if you’re pulled over.

  • Stay put: Never get out of the car unless instructed to do so. Keep your hands in sight as the officer(s) approach.
  • Stay calm: Everyone gets nervous around the police. Nerves can result in unwanted circumstances. Answer questions and don’t try to make a friend. When asked for license, proof of insurance and registration, give it to them.
  • Be cordial: Remain cordial and polite. Answer any questions presented. Remember, if you are not under arrest, the right to remain silent is moot.
  • Do the breathalyzer: Here in the Garden State, you cannot refuse a breathalyzer. Refusing to comply may result in a charge of refusal.

Not every “reasonable suspicion” turns into an arrest, let alone a conviction. But it remains important to know what to expect and how to conduct yourself.

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