Court Rules on Right Against Self-Incrimination, Right to Jury Trial in New Jersey DWI Case

By 1st United States Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsA defendant in a New Jersey DWI case claimed that the municipal court denied him two important constitutional rights:  the right against self-incrimination and the right to a trial by jury. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that no one may be compelled to give testimony against themselves in a criminal case. This has led to the well-known “right to remain silent” during and after an arrest, as well as strict rules prohibiting prosecutors from using a defendant’s silence as evidence of guilt. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial in many, but not all, criminal cases. The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division’s opinion in this case, State v. Engle, explains how these rights apply in many DWI cases.

A police officer pulled the defendant over for allegedly making an illegal left turn. The officer claimed that he “detected an odor of alcohol” coming from the defendant’s vehicle and observed that the defendant’s eyes were “bloodshot and glassy.” He asked the defendant to perform several field sobriety tests (FSTs), and he testified that the defendant did poorly on all of them.

A medical doctor testified for the defendant, stating that his “excessive weight and reconstructed left knee” prevented the defendant from performing well on the FSTs. He also testified that the defendant’s bloodshot and glassy eyes were consistent with a cold the defendant stated he had at the time. Prosecutors countered by noting that the defendant did not complain about pain during the tests, nor did he inform the officer of any medical conditions that could affect the FSTs. The municipal court convicted the defendant of DWI, improper turn, and several other offenses.

On appeal, the defendant raised two points. He first argued that the municipal court violated his right to remain silent by using his silence during the FSTs as evidence of guilt. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the state may not use a defendant’s silence as evidence of guilt once they have been placed under arrest and read their Miranda rights. The New Jersey Supreme Court has gone further, ruling in State v. Muhammad in 2005 that this right may also apply prior to an arrest, and it extended this right specifically to DWI cases in 2012’s State v. Stas.

In the present case, however, the court held that the defendant’s silence was not the basis for the municipal court’s verdict. The defendant’s silence, the court found, was with regard to injuries or health conditions that might affect the FSTs. It held, first, that the defendant could not use this silence to discredit the FSTs after the fact, and second, that the officer’s testimony about the defendant’s demeanor was enough to sustain the conviction.

The defendant’s second point on appeal involved his right to a jury trial. The appellate court quickly rejected this argument. Under New Jersey law, DWI is considered a traffic offense, not a criminal offense, and therefore it is not subject to the Sixth Amendment requirement of a trial by jury. The New Jersey Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling in State v. Hamm established this rule, followed by the Appellate Division’s 2010 ruling in State v. Enright.

If you are charged with DWI in New Jersey, a knowledgeable and experienced DWI attorney can guide you through the court process while working to minimize the impact of the charges on your life. We have dedicated our entire law practice at Levow & Associates to defending DWI cases. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team, contact us online or at (877) 975-3399.

More Blog Posts:

Is There a Right to Trial by Jury in New Jersey DWI Cases? New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 22, 2014

New Jersey Supreme Court Reverses DWI Conviction, Rules that Trial Court Could Not Consider Evidence from Pre-Trial Suppression Hearing as Proof of Guilt, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 3, 2014

New Jersey Supreme Court Dismisses DWI Charge, Finding that Defendant’s Right to a Speedy Trial Was Violated, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 7, 2014

Photo credit: By 1st United States Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.