the lawThe legal treatment of driving while intoxicated (DWI) varies from one state to another, with some states categorizing it as a criminal offense and others, including New Jersey, calling it a traffic or motor vehicle offense. Several recent media reports have questioned whether New Jersey’s DWI laws are “tough enough,” pointing to the risks allegedly posed by repeat offenders. The New Jersey Legislature has revised and amended the DWI statute many times, and several bills are currently pending that would increase some penalties and reduce others. A key question to consider when discussing the “toughness” of DWI laws is whether the purpose of these laws is to punish people who violate the law, prevent people from violating the law in the future, or some combination of the two. This particular dispute is at least as old as the legal system itself.

Every state defines DWI, in part, as driving with blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. The differences between treating DWI as a criminal or traffic offense include the procedures courts must follow at trial, and the possible punishments resulting from a conviction. A DWI conviction in New Jersey, by itself, results in license suspension and a fine, as well as the possibility of jail time. A first-time offender with BAC of at least 0.15 percent must also install an ignition interlock device (IID) in their vehicle, both during and after the period of suspension. Second, third, and subsequent offenses also carry greater possible penalties, up to a maximum fine of $1,000, license suspension of ten years, and 180 days in jail.

In states where DWI is considered a criminal offense, penalties may be greater than in New Jersey, in terms of fine amount and length of jail sentence. The specific code section dealing with DWI in New Jersey, however, is not the only one involved in DWI enforcement. The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Code includes provisions penalizing drivers for refusing to submit to breath testing and for driving with a suspended license, as well as for circumstances like DWI with a minor passenger in the vehicle.
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Keyless IgnitionNew Jersey law imposes a wide variety of penalties for the traffic offense of driving while intoxicated (DWI). Some of these penalties, like fines and jail time, are primarily punitive. Other penalties have the additional goal of public safety. A license suspension after a DWI certainly counts as punishment, but proponents of license suspensions often cite the public safety benefit of keeping DWI offenders off the roads. A similar justification accompanies the New Jersey law requiring the use of an ignition interlock device (IID), which requires the driver to submit a breath sample and prevents a vehicle from starting if the sample shows a blood alcohol content (BAC) above a certain amount. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a federal agency, recommends the expanded use of IIDs, based largely on its assessment of the benefit to public safety. A bill currently pending in the New Jersey Legislature would require the installation of an IID for all DWI convictions.

Under current New Jersey law, the penalty for a first-time DWI offense does not include mandatory IID installation if the defendant’s BAC was less than 0.15 percent. Municipal court judges still have discretionary authority to order IID use in such cases during the period of the driver’s license suspension, and for six to 12 months after the reinstatement of the license. For a first offense with a BAC of 0.15 percent or higher, IID installation is mandatory for a similar period of time. After a second or subsequent DWI offense, IID installation is mandatory during the suspension period and for one to three years afterwards.

A DWI defendant cannot drive any vehicle other than the one with the IID installed while they are subject to a court order requiring an IID. Failing to install an IID as ordered, or operating a vehicle equipped with an IID by having someone else blow into the device, can result in an additional one-year license suspension. Other IID-related offenses include blowing into someone else’s IID to allow them to start the vehicle, tampering with an IID, and knowingly lending or leasing a vehicle without an IID to someone subject to a court order requiring an IID. These are all disorderly person offenses, which can carry penalties of up to six months in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.

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Roman dieNew Jersey law imposes increasingly harsh penalties for subsequent convictions of driving while intoxicated (DWI) and refusal to submit to breath testing. Penalties for both offenses may include fines, a driver’s license suspension, and the mandatory use of an ignition interlock device. A conviction for DWI may also involve jail time. State law includes “step-down” provisions, however, that lessen the severity of a sentence if a sufficient amount of time has passed since the most recent prior conviction. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled on an appeal involving a defendant’s refusal conviction, which followed three DWI convictions. The court’s ruling in State v. Clapper considered whether the step-down provisions, which only mention second and third DWI offenses, apply to subsequent refusal offenses.

The New Jersey DWI statute imposes progressively harsher penalties for (1) a first DWI conviction involving a blood alcohol content (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent but less than 0.10 percent, (2) a first offense involving a BAC of 0.10 percent or higher, (3) a second offense, and (4) a third or subsequent offense. The refusal statute imposes increasing penalties for (1) first, (2) second, and (3) third or subsequent offenses. Prior DWI convictions may be used to enhance the sentence for a refusal conviction, according to the Appellate Division’s 2015 ruling in State v. Taylor, but prior refusal convictions may not be used to enhance a DWI conviction.

Under the step-down provisions, if a second DWI offense occurs more than 10 years after the first, the court must impose the sentence for a first offense. Likewise, if a third offense occurs more than 10 years after the second, the court must treat it as a second offense. This applies to both DWI and refusal convictions under the system described in Taylor. Notably, the step-down provisions do not mention subsequent convictions after a third one.

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brainDefendants charged with criminal offenses in New Jersey can raise a variety of defenses. These are specific claims or arguments asserting that, even if the allegations against the defendant are correct, the defendant is not criminally liable. Many defenses are derived from the common law, and the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice (CCJ) also defines various defenses. Since driving while intoxicated (DWI) is an offense under the Motor Vehicle Code, rather than the CCJ, courts have addressed whether common-law defenses are available in DWI cases on a case-by-case basis. The insanity defense involves the claim that a defendant was incapable of understanding the wrongful nature of their conduct at the time. A Law Division court considered the question of how this might apply to a DWI case at some length in State v. Inglis in 1997.

Insanity is a common-law affirmative defense in New Jersey. When a defendant raises a defense in a criminal case, the prosecution must rebut the defense as a part of their burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. An affirmative defense, however, partially shifts the burden to the defendant, who must prove the elements of the defense by a preponderance of the evidence.

New Jersey uses the M’Naghten rule to identify what a defendant raising the insanity defense must prove in court. The rule derives from an 1843 English case in which the defendant killed the British Prime Minister’s secretary, falsely believing that the secretary was involved in a conspiracy against him. Under this rule, everyone is presumed to be sane, unless they can prove that, at the time of the offense, they suffered from a “defect of reason” or “disease of the mind,” which kept them from either “know[ing] the nature and quality of” their actions, or from “know[ing] what [they were] doing was wrong.” This is, by design, a difficult standard of proof.

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state lineMost features of law enforcement in the U.S. operate at the state and local levels. These include traffic laws, like those related to driving while intoxicated (DWI). The legal system in New Jersey, like all states, categorizes alleged offenses based on factors like the type of activity involved and the severity of the harm allegedly caused. Major offenses are classified as felonies, and less serious offenses are considered misdemeanors. Traffic offenses are generally not considered criminal offenses at all, although they can still result in fines and jail time. New Jersey treats DWI as a traffic offense in all cases, but other states, like our neighbor, New York, take a different view. A recent case involving a New Jersey resident driving in New York illustrates the difference. An arrest for DWI, combined with a blood alcohol content (BAC) above a certain level and a prior DWI conviction, resulted in felony criminal charges.

DWI and most related offenses, such as a refusal to submit to breath testing and driving with a suspended license, are considered traffic offenses under New Jersey law. Despite the lack of the “criminal” designation, the penalties for a conviction can still be quite serious. A third or subsequent conviction for DWI, for example, results in a minimum jail sentence of 180 days, with credit for up to 90 days in a rehabilitation program. The only DWI-related offense that is considered “criminal” under New Jersey law occurs when a person drives with a suspended license, and the license suspension is due to a prior DWI conviction. This is a “fourth degree crime” and carries a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 180 days.

New York, much like New Jersey, codifies its DWI laws in the Vehicle & Traffic Law (VTL), rather than its Penal Law. The statute distinguishes among “driving while ability impaired” by alcohol, driving while intoxicated by alcohol, and “driving while ability impaired by drugs.” It identifies “driving while intoxicated per se” as driving with a BAC of 0.08 or higher, and it defines the offense of “aggravated driving while intoxicated” as either (1) driving with a BAC of 0.18 percent or higher or (2) driving while impaired with a child, age 15 or younger, in the car.

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HolidaysThe holidays are a time of happiness and celebration for many people, but law enforcement officials are aware of the risks to public safety potentially posed by too much celebration. Police departments throughout New Jersey have announced increased enforcement of state laws regarding driving while intoxicated (DWI) during the holiday season. They have many means of doing this at their disposal, from traffic stops based on a reasonable suspicion that a person might be impaired by alcohol, to roadside checkpoints intended to check drivers for DWI. While the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limits the ability of police to stop and search people, and those limits have just as much force during the holidays as at any other time of the year, courts have allowed police to operate DWI checkpoints subject to certain requirements. We encourage everyone to enjoy the holidays and be safe, and to know their rights under state and federal laws.

New Jersey’s DWI statute makes it a motor vehicle offense to operate a vehicle “while under the influence of intoxicating liquor,” or with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent. This means that police can arrest someone on suspicion of DWI, and prosecutors can pursue charges, even without evidence of a BAC above the legal limit. To do so, they must present other types of evidence, such as testimony from an officer who observed a defendant at or near the time of their arrest and can describe behavior, appearance, or other conditions indicative of intoxication.

The holiday season often features parties in bars and other public venues and in people’s homes. Police across the state are participating in the two-week “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over 2016 Year End Holiday Crackdown,” a program supported by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety (DHTS). Local law enforcement agencies may obtain grants from the DHTS to assist in implementing the campaign, which includes “saturation patrols” by police and increased use of roadside DWI checkpoints.

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Music-breathNew Jersey prosecutors often rely on evidence of a defendant’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to prove guilt in driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases. Police officers typically determine a person’s BAC by testing a breath sample. All police departments in this state use a device known as the Alcotest for this purpose. The Alcotest is prone to errors, and it requires continual maintenance. We were involved in a New Jersey Supreme Court case, State v. Chun, that established specific procedures police must follow to maintain the Alcotest device. Failure to follow these procedures ought to result in suppression of the breath testing results. A pending lawsuit in a New Jersey federal court is calling thousands of Alcotest results into question due to allegedly fraudulent records. The plaintiff in Ortiz v. New Jersey State Police claims that thousands of DWI defendants throughout the state would have challenged the BAC evidence in their cases, had they known about the alleged failure to follow the procedures established by Chun.

Prosecutors can establish the required elements of DWI without BAC evidence, but state law gives them a compelling reason to prefer such evidence. A defendant with BAC of 0.08 percent or higher—commonly known as the “legal limit”—is presumed to be impaired within the meaning of the DWI statute. BAC of 0.10 percent or higher can result in even greater penalties. Anyone driving a vehicle on public roads in New Jersey, according to state law, has given implied consent to provide a breath sample on suspicion of DWI, and refusal to do so is a separate motor vehicle offense.

Devices that purportedly use a breath sample to measure BAC first appeared in the mid-20th century. The Alcotest 7110 MKIII-C became the device for New Jersey law enforcement during the early 2000s. It uses two methods to measure BAC: infrared spectroscopy and electrochemical cell technology. Regular maintenance and careful calibration are what the State says make the process reliable. The purpose of the Chun decision was to attempt to ensure that this happens.
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scroll certificateIn criminal prosecutions, the state has the burden of proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is an intentionally difficult burden, designed to protect the rights described in the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Although driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a motor vehicle offense in New Jersey, rather than a criminal one, most of these protections apply in DWI cases. Defendants can challenge the admissibility or sufficiency of the state’s evidence before or during trial. They can also challenge evidence on appeal or in a motion for post-conviction relief (PCR), especially if new information becomes available. Recent allegations of records tampering against an officer of the New Jersey State Police may create ample opportunities for such challenges, since the allegedly fraudulent records potentially affect 20,000 DWI cases statewide.

The New Jersey Rules of Evidence govern the use of evidence in court proceedings. One of the most important rules involves statements made outside the presence of a judge or jury, which are known as “hearsay.” A statement is considered inadmissible hearsay when it is “offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” In plain English, a police officer can testify about their own personal observations of the defendant but not about statements made by other people. Public records kept in the ordinary course of government business, such as reports generated by an Alcotest device, are generally excepted from the hearsay rule. This exception, however, is subject to some exceptions of its own.

A 2007 decision by the New Jersey Appellate Division, State v. Kent, addressed the use of documentary evidence in a DWI case. The court held that a chemist report describing the results of a blood test is inadmissible at trial if the defendant does not have the opportunity to cross-examine the individual who prepared the report. The case drew on the Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling in Crawford v. Washington, which addressed the admissibility of written statements or reports that are deemed “testimonial” and therefore subject to the hearsay exclusion.

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drunk driving

A defendant in a New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) case can appeal a negative outcome, but appellate courts are limited in their authority to review some lower court actions. A recent decision by the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division illustrates two important issues in a DWI defense. The defendant in State v. Hernandez challenged the evidence that she was intoxicated, arguing that police had her blood drawn without a warrant in violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. She also, at one point in the appeal, challenged the trial court’s findings regarding the credibility of her testimony as compared to several police officers’ testimony. Limitations on the appellate court’s ability to review factual findings, as well as the timeliness of the defendant’s objections, largely determined the court’s ruling.

The “exigent circumstances” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement allows police to conduct a warrantless search if they reasonably believe that there is a substantial risk of the loss or destruction of evidence. Police have used this exception to justify drawing blood from a DWI suspect without a warrant. In 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Missouri v. McNeely that the human body’s natural process of metabolizing alcohol is not an “exigent circumstance” justifying a warrantless blood draw. Police can still establish legitimate justifications for warrantless blood draws, but McNeely set a much higher standard than before.

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roadNew Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws allow prosecutors to prove impairment by alcohol in several ways. Evidence of blood alcohol content (BAC), determined by a breath, blood, or urine test, is a well-known method. Prosecutors may also offer witness testimony, particularly testimony by an arresting officer and others who observed the defendant at the time of the arrest. The New Jersey Supreme Court has held that no particular expertise is required to form an opinion, which would be admissible in court, that a person is intoxicated based on observation of the person. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled in State v. Colabella that a BAC below the legal limit for DWI did not supersede officer testimony regarding a defendant’s intoxication in a DWI case. Even though the person’s BAC was not high enough to create a presumption of impairment, the court accepted other evidence.

A BAC of 0.08 percent creates a presumption of intoxication under New Jersey law. This BAC amount is commonly known as the “legal limit” for DWI, and a DWI offense based on BAC evidence is often known as “per se DWI.” New Jersey law makes it a separate offense to refuse to submit to breath testing. This indicates how important the state considers BAC evidence, but it is not absolutely required for a DWI conviction. The DWI statute defines the offense as driving “while under the influence of intoxicating liquor” or other substances, or with a BAC of 0.08 or higher. Prosecutors can introduce evidence that someone was “under the influence” through officer testimony about how the defendant was driving, their demeanor and appearance, the odor of alcohol, and their performance on field sobriety tests (FSTs).

The defendant in Colabella challenged a DWI conviction when BAC test results showed a BAC below the legal limit. According to the Appellate Division’s opinion, an officer pulled the defendant over for an illegal turn and an expired inspection sticker. The officer testified at trial that he detected a “strong odor of alcohol” coming from the vehicle. He also stated that the defendant had “slow and slurred” speech and “blood shot and watery” eyes, all indicators of alcohol impairment. The defendant reportedly admitted to consuming one beer and some ibuprofen.

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