Understand the Different Levels of Information Officers Need when Investigating to Properly Make an Arrest

State v. Ruffin

Appellate Docket No.: A-3979-18

Decided March 8, 2021

Submitted by New Jersey DWI Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

In a recent unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division of New Jersey reviewed a Controlled Dangerous Substance (CDS) Driving Under the Influence (DUI) after police found a man hunched over in his car on the side of the road.

In State v. Ruffin, Ridgewood police responded to a 9-1-1 call that a black SUV was stationary in the roadway near an intersection, forcing other vehicles to change lanes to navigate around it.   The caller saw a bald man in the driver’s seat with his head hanging down, not moving. She called 9-1-1 because she believed the man might be in need of medical attention.

Officers found the vehicle in a parking lot.  Officers approached the vehicle and observed an African American man sitting in the driver’s seat in a semi upright position. The window of the parked SUV was already down. The officer did not use his patrol vehicle to block the parked SUV, nor did he order defendant to step out of the vehicle.

Officer Knudson engaged defendant in conversation, advising him that he was responding to a report of an African American man asleep while stopped at a traffic light. Defendant acknowledged that it was indeed his vehicle that had been stationary in the roadway minutes earlier.

Officer Knudson carefully observed defendant’s physical appearance and demeanor during their conversation. He testified that defendant was “upset, lethargic and sleeping, his sentences tapered off toward the end, he was unable to complete sentences, and he was having rambling thoughts.” Another Ridgewood officer arrived at the scene and made similar observations, describing defendant’s slow speech, an inability to answer questions, and bloodshot, watery eyes. Both officers were confused by defendant’s explanation for stopping at the intersection, noting that his story “was dragging on[,]” with “no rhyme or reason to it.” The officers determined from defendant’s appearance and demeanor that he could not safely operate a vehicle, though they were not yet certain whether this was due to a medical condition or intoxication.

Police administered field sobriety tests after determining that defendant did not have a physical disability that would impact his performance.  Lieutenant Pullman first administered the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test. That test indicated the presence of a depressant in defendant’s system. Lieutenant Pullman next administered the walk-and-turn test. Defendant lost his balance, pausing and not turning around. Lieutenant Pullman then administered the one-leg-stand test. Defendant performed poorly even after Lieutenant Pullman allowed him a second attempt. Lieutenant Pullman concluded from the battery of tests that defendant was impaired.

Defendant was placed under arrest for DUI. In the ensuing search of his person, police found a glassine bag inside defendant’s wallet that contained a small white rock of suspected crack cocaine. Defendant later admitted the bag contained crack.

Defendant consented to a urine test back at the police station and it revealed the presence of cocaine, codeine, morphine, 06-monoacetylmorphine, fentanyl, and alprazolam.

The municipal judge found defendant guilty of both charged offenses. Defendant filed an appeal to the Law Division and the Law Division found defendant guilty of both offenses.  Defendant appealed again.

The Appellate Division found that the police had appropriately conducted a field inquiry when looking for defendant. The police also performed appropriately under the community caretaking doctrine, allowing officers to act in an objectively reasonable manner to check on the welfare and safety of citizens.  The officers here checked on the defendant based on the report that he might need medical care, leading to the DUI analysis.  Police also were reasonable in administering the field sobriety test based on their observations of defendant.  The Appellate Division affirmed.

The importance in this case is understanding the different levels of information officers need when investigating to be able to properly make an arrest and charge someone with a crime.  In order to observe or ask questions without any information, officers are permitted to do this so long as it is clear that the person can leave at any time and decline to answer.  In order to physically stop someone and detain them, officers need a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the person is committing a crime.  Last, in order to arrest or for search and seizure, officers need probable cause through a warrant or circumstances that would ordinarily permit officers to get a warrant.

Police may also use the community caretaking exception in investigating a car or home without a warrant if they reasonably believe a member of the public is in danger or need of medical attention.

Knowing these levels of information is crucial.  As in this circumstance, officers can perform a protective sweep incident to an arrest. Often times this is searching a person or a vehicle for weapons or something that the defendant could easily reach during an arrest.  Going into defendant’s home after arresting him outside and not inside prevented officers from further searching defendant’s home to secure the evidence.

If you or someone you know was in a situation similar to this, contact Hark & Hark today.

At Hark & Hark, we represent clients in Superior Court for criminal matters like the present case involving motions to suppress. We vigorously defend our clients by fighting to uphold their constitutional rights, and ensure law enforcement follow proper procedures to legally make an arrest.

We offer payment plan options to clients financially incapable of providing full payment upfront. If you are facing criminal charges similar to this circumstance, please call us to discuss the matter. At Hark & Hark, we represent clients for any case in any county in New Jersey including Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Essex, Gloucester, Mercer, Ocean, and Salem counties. We represent clients in all towns in New Jersey, including Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Edison, Woodbridge, Lakewood, Toms River, Hamilton, Trenton, Clifton, Camden, Brick, Cherry Hill, Passaic, Middletown, Union City, Old Bridge, Gloucester Township, East Orange, Bayonne, Franklin Township, North Bergen, Vineland, and Union.

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Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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