Sussex County NJ woman’s DWI conviction overturned by court

A New Jersey police officer entering a Sussex County woman’s garage to detain her after suspecting she was driving drunk was a violation of her constitutional rights, an appeals court ruled last week in a move that firmly upholds a ancient saying that “every man’s house is his castle.”

While the Supreme Court would later establish exceptions to the Fourth Amendment, a New Jersey court on July 5 overturning a Hardyston woman’s conviction has set a legal precedent for future legal cases over what protections are afforded to residents and where to draw the line when applies to law enforcement officers serving as groundskeepers.

The three sitting state appeals court judges, with Judge Ronald Susswein issuing the opinion, concluded that a Hardyston Township police officer had “reasonable suspicion” to initiate a motor vehicle stop of the woman in 2019 after 911 calls reported her “erratic driving,” but illegally arrested her after he entered her open garage after she had pulled her vehicle into it.

The decision overturns a Hardyston Municipal Court judge’s conviction against the woman and a ruling by a state Supreme Court judge that upheld the municipal court’s conviction after she appealed. Both judges ruled the officer had good reason to enter the garage — but the state appeals court last week criticized the findings, noting that the officer or prosecutors proved some “compelling circumstances” legally allowed the officer to break into the woman’s home, including her garage. .

Was this a circumstance that merited a warrantless entry?

“At the very core” of the Fourth Amendment is the right of a person to retire to his own home and “it is free from unreasonable governmental intrusion,” the US Supreme Court affirmed in a 2012 decision.

Put another way, police officers cannot enter a home to arrest a resident without consent or without a warrant, but there are exceptions that are often classified as “exigent circumstances” in the eyes of the courts.

The Supreme Court has consistently recognized the “emergency relief” exception for non-trespassing of private property. In a 2013 New Jersey Supreme Court Decisionthe court explained that law enforcement may enter a home if they have an “objectively reasonable basis to believe that an emergency requires (the police) to provide immediate assistance to protect or preserve life, or to prevent serious injury.”

In this case, Mary Mellody was sentenced in March 2022 before a Hardyston Township Municipal Court judge on charges of driving while intoxicated and reckless driving following an incident that occurred at Crystal Springs Development in 2019, according to court records.

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Hardyston police received a 911 call around 10:45 p.m. on Nov. 1, 2019, reporting a black Jeep swerving and driving over curbs, Susswein wrote. The caller provided the license plate number and an officer was dispatched to the address on file for the Jeep’s owner, according to the warrant.

Police found the Jeep in the home’s driveway with its brake lights on. Officers activated the patrol vehicle’s overhead lights to effect a stop and saw the Jeep move forward into the home’s attached garage before stopping and officers heard a “bang,” the warrant states. He thought the Jeep had hit a refrigerator and he went into the garage and saw Mellody in the driver’s seat, he testified in court.

The officer, who did not have his dashcam activated at the time, testified during a May 2024 hearing before an appeals court judge that he asked Mellody what she was doing, why she didn’t stop when he activated his lights and why she crashed into the refrigerator. He also testified that Mellody’s movements were fumbled and slow and her eyes were bloodshot and watery, Susswein said.

The police dashcam was activated when Mellody failed subsequent field sobriety tests, and she was taken to the police station where she was charged with driving while intoxicated, reckless driving and failure to obey the direction of an officer.

Municipal judge found officer credible, accused ‘unfaithful’

A Hardyston Municipal Court judge, who was not named in the decision, denied Mellody’s motion to suppress evidence in 2021, finding the officer had a duty to investigate “not only because there is an indication that she was driving erratically, but there may be a medical issue at stake,” the judge said at the time, according to the decision. The municipal judge also noted that the officer was not required to obtain a search warrant because Mellody was “still in her car” and she was “driving forward” when the officer activated his lights, further stating that if she had turned off her vehicle and entered the . , an order would have been required.

During a trial in March 2022, Mellody testified that she did not hit the refrigerator or hear a crash and notice flashing lights when she put her car in park in her garage, but thought it was at her neighbor’s house. She also testified that health problems affected her balance and ability to perform field sobriety tests.

The judge denied a motion to dismiss the case at the end of the trial, finding the officer’s testimony credible and Mellody’s “truly unbelievable.” Because it was her second DWI conviction, she was sentenced to a two-year suspension of her driver’s license, two years of installation of an interlock, 48 hours of DUI and community service. He dismissed the failure to follow directions from a police charge.

A state Supreme Court judge hearing her appeal concluded that police lawfully entered the garage, reasoning that the patrolman’s testimony raised serious concerns for the woman’s well-being and safety.

Is a 911 call enough to pull someone over?

When it comes to a police investigation, the constitutional rules of engagement are particularly strict, as evidenced by several decisions by the state and the nation’s highest courts, the Supreme Court.

The appeals court found that a 911 call alone was enough to warrant suspicion for the police to stop and was not persuaded by Mellody’s argument that the police had not even seen her alleged “erratic driving.”

However, the appeals court sided with Mellody when she argued that the state supreme court judge’s reliance on a 2016 state supreme court decision to reach his conclusion was misplaced because the case he cited did not involve police entering a private residence but rather just a roadside stop.

An officer’s conduct versus his convictions

While both a municipal and state court judge believed the officer had acted in “good faith” when he entered the garage, perhaps believing the woman may have suffered a medical episode or that her health was at risk, the appeals court disagreed .

Instead, the court focused on the officer’s conduct and not his subjective beliefs, noting that the officer did not suggest that he acted with any urgency to render medical aid.

“At no point during the meeting were we asked if she was okay,” the decision states.

The decision vacates Mellody’s DWI conviction. Her reckless driving violation will be remanded to a state Superior Court judge, who will determine whether there is enough evidence to establish a reckless driving conviction without considering any evidence after the officer’s illegal entry into the garage, the court said.

E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @LoriComstockNJH or on Facebook.

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