As reported by Christopher Baxter for NJ.Com, on Wednesday, December 18, 2013, a three-Judge panel of the state’s Appellate Division suppressed evidence of an October 2010 arrest of a Princeton University Student charged with driving under the influence. The opining Appellate Judge held that the actions taken by police officers at the scene do not fall under the purview of the community caretaking doctrine nor do they constitute constitutionally permissible investigative techniques.
The arrest occurred in the early hours of Sunday Morning, October 3, 2010, after a Princeton Borough Police Officer responded to a report that a large crowd of student customers were gathering at the University Place WaWa. While the Officer stood in front of the store, the Student pulled into the parking space directly in front of the Officer. The Student’s passenger then exited the automobile and quickly entered the store while the Student remained in the vehicle.
The Officer alleged the Student looked groggy and appeared to be falling asleep behind the steering wheel with the engine running. The Officer then approached the vehicle, opened the door to speak to the Student, and began asking the him questions. He smelled alcohol, records show, performed sobriety tests and eventually charged the Student with drunken driving.
But the Appellate Division described the Officer’s act of opening the car door without making an attempt to talk to him or investigate further as legally improper.
“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,” Judge Jose Fuentes wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel.
The case centered on a emerging legal theory called the “community-caretaking doctrine,” which allows police officers to take certain actions without a warrant if someone is in need of help or if property is in immediate danger.
The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, arguing on behalf of the Officer, said he opened the door not because he was investigating a drunken driving incident but because he was concerned about the Student’s well being. Only afterward, they argued, did the Officer undertake a formal investigation.
A Princeton Municipal Court Judge suppressed the evidence of the Student’s intoxication, finding the Officer had no legal basis to open the car door and had overstepped his authority. The state Superior Court overturned the ruling and allowed the evidence.
But the Appellate Division reversed, finding no reason to believe that the Officer approached the vehicle out of concern for the Student but only because he thought he was drunk. The judges found the Officer had no probable cause to open the car door.
Judge Fuentes said in the decision that the Officer should have “knocked on the defendant’s car window and engaged in a conversation with him to determine whether he had alcohol on his breath or was otherwise too tired or sleepy to drive safely.”
“Based on the outcome of these preliminary and limited interactions, (the Officer) 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,” Fuentes wrote.
He added, “The state cannot invoke the community-caretaking doctrine to convert an unconstitutional investigatory act … into a benign attempt to verify defendant’s health status.”
The Student’s attorney said his client was a “good kid who just had a bad night that night.”
“I’m really gratified that the Appellate Division dealt with very complex but cutting edge legal issues, constitutional issues and came out with a decision favorable to my client,” the attorney said.
He added he did not believe the state would be able to successfully prosecute the charges without the evidence.
A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office declined comment on the ruling, but said it was under review for possible appeal.