William H. Mone reports on a recent published decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.
A New Jersey woman was arrested after a police officer observed her vehicle make a U-turn on a highway and pull into the parking lot of a closed retail business shortly after midnight on a holiday. The officer did not observe the woman commit any traffic violations or drive erratically, but nonetheless activated his emergency lights and stopped the woman’s vehicle to investigate her presence in the parking lot at such an odd time. The officer’s questioning of the woman ultimately led to her being arrested and charged with Driving While Intoxicated (“DWI”), refusal to submit to a chemical breath test, and reckless driving.
The woman filed a motion in the municipal court to suppress the motor vehicle stop for lack of probable cause. The municipal court held an evidentiary hearing and denied the motion, holding that the officer’s stop of her vehicle was permissible under the “community caretaking” doctrine, and thus the officer did not need probable cause because the officer was acting on a legitimate concern for the woman’s safety and not for the purpose of investigating criminal activity. Thereafter, the woman conditionally pled guilty to DWI and reserved her right to appeal the denial of her motion.
On appeal to the Superior Court, the Law Division reversed the ruling of the municipal court and found that the officer’s actions did not fall within the “community caretaking” doctrine, but instead amounted to a motor vehicle stop and a seizure of the woman, which required probable cause or an articulable suspicion that the woman had committed a motor vehicle offense. The Law Division granted the woman’s motion to suppress and vacated her guilty plea. The State appealed this decision to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the ruling of the Law Division and reinstated the woman’s guilty plea. In doing so, the Appellate Division held that the officer’s actions were permissible under the “community caretaking” doctrine and that the officer did not need to demonstrate probable cause or an articulable suspicion to believe there was evidence of a crime to justify the motor vehicle stop. The Appellate Division elaborated on the “community caretaking” doctrine, noting that it applies when police officers are not investigating criminal violations, but are instead aiding those who may be in danger or creating a feeling of security in the community.
The Appellate Division concluded that because the woman was driving in the parking lot of a closed retail business after midnight on a holiday, it was objectively reasonable for the officer to stop the woman’s vehicle and inquire as to her well-being and that the officer did not need to observe criminal activity to stop the woman’s car.
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