Today the New Jersey Appellate Division affirmed the municipal court’s determination that a police officer did not have any objective lawful basis to walk up to a car in a gas station at or near a college campus and open the door and immediately investigate a DWI offense. In overruling the Law Division the Appellate court commence an exhaustive evaluation of the current state of New Jersey’s ‘Community Caretaking’ standard. Initially, the court examined the investigatory stop and stated:
What Constitutes a Valid Investigatory Stop
“An investigatory stop is valid only if the officer has a particularized suspicion based upon an objective observation that the person stopped has been [engaged] or is Sergeant about to engage in criminal wrongdoing. The articulable reasons or particularized suspicion of criminal activity must be based upon the law enforcement officer’s assessment of the totality of circumstances with which he is faced. Such observations are those that, in view of [the] officer’s experience and knowledge, taken together with rational inferences drawn from those facts, reasonabl[y] warrant the limited intrusion upon the individual’s freedom. [State v. Nishina, 175 N.J. 502, 511 (2003) (quoting State v. Davis, 104 N.J. 490, 504 (1986)) (emphasis added) (internal quotation marks omitted).] Then the court Ruled, “applying these principles to the undisputed, salient facts in this case, there is no rational basis to conclude that at the time Sergeant Riccitello saw defendant falling asleep behind the steering wheel of his running car, he had a particularized suspicion, based upon an objective observation, that defendant had been driving or was about to drive while under the influence of some unknown intoxicant.” The court continued: “As the Court made clear in Nishina, the officer’s particularized suspicion must be based on his assessment of the totality of circumstances, in view of the officer’s experience and knowledge. The Law Division reliance on social scientific studies, dictionary definitions, or even a judge’s personal “common sense” extrapolations cannot substitute or preempt these objective standards.” The court then admonished the officer be directly stating, “Here, Sergeant Riccitello should have knocked on defendant’s car window and engaged in conversation with him to determine whether he had alcohol on his breath or was otherwise too tired or sleepy to drive safely. The appellate court reasoned this alone would have been more than enough for the officer to obtain the necessary objective reasonable belief that the driver of a parked car with the engine one in a convenient store parking lot may have operated under the influence. Then, based on the outcome of these preliminary and limited interactions, Riccitello could have asked defendant to produce his driving credentials or even step out of the car to see if he was unsteady on his feet.
However, as the evidence was submitted the the trial court, seeing a young man, who may or may not be a student at Princeton, legally drive his vehicle into a parking space outside a convenience store in the early morning hours on a Sunday, and while parked, put his head down and close his eyes, does not give a police officer legal grounds to open the young man’s car door. Under the totality of these circumstances, Sergeant Riccitello’s conduct was not legally sustainable as a valid investigatory stop.
Community Care Taking Exception to Warrant and DWI
Then the Appellate Division reviewed Officer Riccitello behavior under the ‘community care taking’ microscope. The court stated, “In performing these tasks, typically, there is not time to acquire a warrant when emergent circumstances arise and an immediate search is required to preserve life or property. This narrow exception to the warrant requirement has been applied to such circumstances as allowing the police to conduct a warrantless search of a car to locate a gun that was missing from a police officer, to perform a “welfare check” of a vehicle that was parked in an area known for suicides and whose last authorized driver was listed as a missing person and to set foot in an apartment to ascertain the welfare of a child who was home from school, with no apparent excuse, in a residence that had been the site of an alleged sexual assault earlier that day[.] The community – caretaking functions in these cases were permissible without a warrant because they were “divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” It is essentially unquestioned that Sergeant Riccitello’s conduct in opening defendant’s car door was motivated by his belief that defendant may be under the influence of an unknown intoxicant. There is no basis to conclude that his actions were not intended to detect, investigate, or acquire evidence relating to a possible violation of a Title 39 offense. The State cannot invoke the community-caretaking doctrine to convert an unconstitutional investigatory act to acquire inculpatory evidence without probable cause into a benign attempt to verify defendant’s health status.