DWI: Traffic stops and your Rights Against Self-Incrimination and Unlawful Search and Seizures

Most People have some familiarity with their rights under the 4th and 5th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution against unlawful search and seizures, as well as their rights to not be compelled to be a witness against themselves in a criminal case. So how do these rights apply to the typical DWI case that starts with a stop for a traffic law violation, progresses with a police officer asking them questions and often ends in them being arrested and charged with a DWI?


In order for a police officer to lawfully stop your vehicle, he or she must have “probable cause” to believe that an occupant of the car has committed a crime, or “probable cause” to believe that the operator has committed a traffic infraction. While the precise definition of “probable cause” is not entirely settled under New York law, generally if an officer has a minimal reasonable belief that the motorist has violated a traffic law, he or she can legally stop the vehicle. In general, an officer can legally stop your vehicle where they (a) have probable cause to believe that the motorist has committed some violation of the Vehicle & Traffic Law, (b) observe any equipment violation upon the vehicle as defined by various provision of the Vehicle & Traffic Law, (c) have reasonable suspicion that some occupant of the vehicle is engaged in criminal activity, or (d) are properly conducting a vehicle checkpoint that is compliant with the law.


Assuming a police officer has legally stopped your vehicle, the next logical question is can that officer now speak with you and ask you questions that could result in your providing them with admissions that could be used against you. In a DWI, these questions usually include asking where you are coming from, what and how much alcohol have you had to drink and when your last consumed an alcoholic beverage. While some may logically assume that a police officer must first advise you of your 5th Amendment rights prior to asking you these questions (i.e. – read you your Miranda rights), that is unfortunately not the law in the State of New York.

While the reading of the so called “Miranda rights” has become a prominent feature in pop culture television shows depicting police investigations, the reality is that police officers are only required to advise you of such rights in certain situations and sometimes at all. It is only where an individual is in “custody” and the officer elicits incriminating responses that the officer must give the Miranda warnings. The failure of an officer to advise you of these rights does not make the arrest illegal and does not mean the charges will be dismissed. This is particularly true in the context of a traffic stop and DWI investigation. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the courts of New York State have held that an officer’s stop of a vehicle and subsequent questioning of the driver on the roadside does not amount to a “custodial interrogation” and therefore a police officer is not required to advise the driver of their rights against self-incrimination prior to asking them questions. Unfortunately for the motorist, this is when most of the incriminating statements are made and they will be used against them in trial. It is important to remember that you have these rights and that you can exercise them at any point. Simply put, a motorist does not have to answer any of the questions that a police officer stopping them may ask. While a driver is required to comply with reasonable requests of the officer, such as providing their driver’s license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance, they do not need to answer additional questions and do not have make any admissions to drinking or their level of intoxication that can later be used against them in court. Of course, exercising any of your constitutional rights may have an impact on how the prosecutor handles your case and can have a bearing on what ultimately happens with your charges. It is a good idea to speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney about what your rights before you find yourself in any position where a police officer has stopped your vehicle. please give us a call If you think we can help you better understand your rights.