The statute defining driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey establishes two ways for prosecutors to prove guilt. First, they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant “operate[d] a motor vehicle while under the influence of” alcohol or drugs. Alternatively, they can show that a defendant operated a motor vehicle while their blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.08 percent or higher. Despite the common name of the offense, however, the statute says nothing about “intoxication.” It also omits another word commonly used in discussions of DWI, “impairment.” All the way back in 1964, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in State v. Johnson that a defendant’s actual impairment is not an essential element of DWI, and the ability to drive safely anyway is not a defense.
Operating a motor vehicle with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher is sometimes known as DWI per se, since the BAC evidence effectively creates a legal presumption of guilt. A defendant can challenge BAC evidence by questioning the accuracy of the testing device. State law requires police to follow specific procedures when administering a breath test, and the device requires regular maintenance and careful calibration. A failure by police to follow proper procedures can result in the exclusion of test results at trial.
A DWI conviction is possible without BAC evidence, or even with evidence that a defendant’s BAC was less than 0.08 percent, if the state provides evidence that the defendant exhibited signs of intoxication. This usually involves eyewitness testimony from police officers and others. Challenging this sort of evidence might require impeaching a witness’ credibility or providing a counter-narrative to the prosecution’s story. A defendant can also challenge the prosecution’s entire case if they can show that the original traffic stop or arrest violated their Fourth Amendment rights.