The Appellate Division has issued an opinion which has implications for any case involving a warrant-less motor vehicle stop. In State v. John Bennett, (App. Div. Docket No. A-6044-10T4; unpublished), the Court ordered the suppression of evidence obtained when a police officer opened the Defendant’s car door to speak to the driver. The Court held that the officer’s action could not be justified under the community care-taking doctrine, nor did it fall within constitutionally permissible investigative techniques.
There is no rational basis to conclude that at the time [the officer] saw defendant falling asleep behind the steering wheel of his running car … that defendant had been driving or was about to drive while under the influence of some unknown intoxicant.
The facts of the case are straightforward: at around 2:49 a.m. on a Sunday morning, Mr. Bennett pulled his car into a parking space at a convenience store. Bennett then waited in his car while his passenger went into the store. A police officer who happened to be outside the store observed Bennett, who appeared to the officer to be “groggy … and falling asleep behind the steering wheel with the engine running.” Based solely on this observation, the officer approached Bennett’s vehicle and opened the door to speak with him. Evidence obtained pursuant to this action formed the basis of DWI and Refusal charges. The Appellate Division held that, assessing the totality of the circumstances in this case, “there is no rational basis to conclude that at the time [the officer] saw defendant falling asleep behind the steering wheel of his running car, he had a particularized suspicion, based on objective observation, that defendant had been driving or was about to drive while under the influence of some unknown intoxicant.” While it would have been proper for the officer to knock on Bennett’s window to engage in conversation with him, the officer’s action in opening the car door was not legally sustainable as a valid investigatory stop. The Court further held that the officer’s action could not be justified under the community care-taking doctrine, because the officer’s “actions were … intended to detect, investigate or acquire evidence relating to a possible violation of a Title 39 offense.” Therefore, the State could not invoke the community care-taking doctrine “to convert an unconstitutional investigatory act to acquire inculpatory evidence without probable cause without probable cause into a benign attempt to verify defendant’s health status.”
By Christopher G. Hewitt, Esq.