Thursday, February 6, 2014

Appellate Division Held Boro of Princeton Police Officer Could Not Open Car Door of Motorist that Appeared to Be Falling Asleep While Vehicle was Parked and Idling.

In State v. Bennett the appellate division rejected under the caretaker exception of the warrant requirement to open the car door to a motor vehicle that was parked and idling to investigate a possible DWI. 

The defendant vehicle was parked in front of a convenience store near Princeton University in the early Sunday morning (2:43 A.M.).  The police officer suspecting that the motorist had been drinking approached the motor vehicle and opened the door.   The officer ordered the defendant out of the vehicle and requested that the defendant perform field sobriety tests, which the officer alleged he had failed.  At the station the defendant refused to submit to a breath test.

The motion to suppressed was granted by the trial court, however, the law division judge reversed and held that under the caretaker exemption the officer had the duty to investigate whether the defendant was intoxicated.  However, in a published opinion the appellate division reversed the law division and held that the caretaker exemption was not applicable here and that the officer overstepped his authority by immediately ordering the motorist out of his vehicle.

This case affirms well established case law that the opening of an automobile door without probable cause, or reasonable articulable suspicion, or after a valid automobile stop for a motor vehicle infraction, is unlawful.  Note, an officer may request a motorist to exit the motor vehicle after a motor vehicle stop.  What makes this case unique is that the first thing that the police officer did was open the door, and order the motorist out.  If he had asked him to roll down the windows, and further facts indicated that the motorist was intoxicated, than the police officer could have ordered the motorist out to perform field sobriety tests.

As the court in Bennett held, the officer should have knocked on the window, and first determine whether the motorist had alcohol on his breath before requesting that the motorist exit the vehicle.

Law Office of Vincent J. Sanzone, Jr., Esq.

277 North Broad Street
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P.O. Box 261
Elizabeth (Union County), N.J. 07207
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Union County Criminal Defense Attorney Protecting the Rights of the Criminally Accused for 23-Years.  Practice devoted exclusively to criminal law.

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