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DWI Field Sobriety Test Requires Reasonable Suspicion Only - Probable Cause Not Necessary

In State v. Bernokeits, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey upheld a lower court ruling that field sobriety testing requires only a reasonable, articulable suspicion of driving while intoxicated ("DWI"), not probable cause.

The defendant was stopped at approximately 3:30 a.m. on July 31, 2010 in Seaside Heights for illegal window tinting and loud exhaust.  He appeared nervous and had a strong odor of alcohol on his breath.  He admitted to having one beer, but the officer detected the odor of hard alcohol.  The officer requested the defendant step out of the vehicle for field sobriety testing, and he was subequently arrested and charged with DWI.

In Seaside Heights Municipal Court, the defendant argued there was insufficient probable cause to justify the field sobriety testing and moved to suppress evidence derived from the test.  The judge denied the motion, finding that the officer had a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the defendant was intoxicated.  The municipal court judge's ruling was upheld on appeal in Ocean County Superior Court, which was further upheld by the Appellate Division.  The Appellate Court held that DWI field testing requires no more that a reasonable suspicion on the part of the officer that the driver was intoxicated - not probable cause.  The results of field sobriety tests extablish probable cause for a DWI arrest.  Since field sobriety testing is routine and non-intrusive, no more than a reasonable articulable suspicion of intoxication is required for a police officer to request a driver to submit to such testing.

This is a significant case for DWI defense practitioners throughout New Jersey, especially here at the Jersey Shore, Monmouth and Ocean Counties.

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