New Jersey Appellate Court Reverses DWI Conviction, Finding Problems with Field Sobriety Tests, Other Evidence

rochelle hartman [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via FlickrThe New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division reversed a defendant’s DWI conviction in January 2015 in State v. Barillari, based on discrepancies between the municipal court’s findings and the findings of the Superior Court, Law Division. The state had presented the arresting officer’s testimony regarding the defendant’s driving, demeanor, appearance, and performance on field sobriety tests (FSTs). Several fact witnesses and an expert witness, testifying for the defendant, challenged the officer’s testimony and his handling of the FSTs. The municipal court found the defendant guilty of DWI, relying on some, but not all, of the state’s evidence. The Law Division appeared to rely on evidence specifically disregarded by the municipal court. Because of this discrepancy, the appellate court remanded the case for a new trial.

The defendant was arrested on a snowy night in December 2009. The arresting officer testified that he witnessed the defendant “doing fishtails in a Jeep” in a restaurant parking lot. He claimed that he detected the odor of alcohol and that the defendant’s eyes were “bloodshot and watery.” The defendant reportedly stated that he had two beers earlier in the evening. The officer had the defendant perform several FSTs, including the horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test, in an area of the parking lot with “a light coating of snow.” The defendant did not perform well on the FSTs. When completing the standard questionnaire after his arrest, the defendant allegedly stated that he had four beers that night.

At trial, the defendant called four lay witnesses:  two friends who were with him from at least late afternoon, the manager of the restaurant where the arrest took place, and the restaurant bartender. They offered generally consistent testimony that the defendant and his two friends arrived at the restaurant for dinner. When the manager decided to close at 9:00 because of the snow, he offered to give the defendant a ride home. The defendant offered to warm up the manager’s Jeep and drove it around the parking lot to warm it up and to make room for a snow plow.

The witnesses saw the defendant have two beers, and they denied that the defendant was fishtailing or otherwise driving erratically. The manager, who had the same level of training as the officer at detecting signs of intoxication, testified that the defendant was not intoxicated. They also testified that, rather than a “light coating of snow,” the parking lot was covered in about six inches of snow. The defendant’s expert witness, who conducted DWI training for New Jersey police officers for 20 years, was sharply critical of the officer’s handling of the FSTs.

The municipal court judge found both the officer’s and the lay witnesses’ testimony credible but gave greater weight to the officer. The judge found that the weather affected the FSTs and specifically declined to consider the HGN test. The judge still found that the tests were relevant. The guilty verdict was based on the defendant’s inconsistent account of how many beers he had drank, the officer’s observations, and the officer’s training.

The Law Division, in affirming the verdict, appeared to give much greater weight to the FSTs. It claimed that it was deferring to the municipal court’s findings regarding the FSTs, but, as the Appellate Division noted, the municipal court did not give much weight to the FSTs. The Appellate Division reversed the conviction, relying on a 2000 decision, State v. Doriguzzi, in which it granted a new trial after the Law Division “improperly relied on HGN tests.”

To schedule a free and confidential consultation regarding your New Jersey DWI case with a knowledgeable and skilled DWI attorney, contact Levow & Associates today online or at (877) 975-3399.

More Blog Posts:

Driver Charged with DWI-Related Offense Despite Breath Test Results Below 0.08%, Based on “Totality of the Circumstances”, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 2, 2015

Motorist Settles Lawsuit Against City Involving Arrest for Alleged DWI, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, March 6, 2015

Field Sobriety Tests in New Jersey DWI Stops, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, February 14, 2015

Photo credit: rochelle hartman [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.