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D.W.I. Update: The constitution still matters. (State v. Puzio)

In recent years, the New Jersey Legislature has made drunk driving law increasingly tougher, removing discretion from the prosecutor and from the judge.  In a recent case, the Appellate Division has made it clear that police officers must comply with the constitution even when it turns out that the motorist was driving while intoxicated.

Score one for the advocates of motorists’ rights.  On August 1, 2005, the New Jersey Appellate Division held that in order to stop a motorist for a motor vehicle violation, an officer must have more than a “good faith belief” that the motorist has violated the motor vehicle code; instead, the courts will hold the officer to the higher standard of “objectively reasonable belief.”

Each time a police officer takes an action, he must comply with the search and seizure requirements of the New Jersey and U.S. Constitutions.  In the case of a motor vehicle stop, the officer must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the motorist has violated the law.  That standard is something less than is required for a conviction.  If a court finds that an arresting officer did not have a reasonable and articulable suspicion for a stop, then it can not consider any evidence that the police obtain as a result of the illegal stop.

In a drunken driving case, that means that the breathalyzer results and any observations of the motorist’s performance of psycho-physical testing.  In other words, if the stop is unconstitutional, then the motorist wins the case, even if there was enough evidence to prove him guilty.

What does the Puzio case mean?  It means that the officer must be correct in his understanding of what the motor vehicle code means.  The courts will not uphold a stop if the motor vehicle code says something other than what the officer believed it to say.  The officer can not just say, “Oops, I was wrong about the statute, but I really believed that I was in the right.” The officer must be right about the law in order to justify the stop to the court.

Rule

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