Recent Decisions in Several New Jersey DWI Appeals Demonstrate that Actual Driving Is Not Always Required to Sustain a DWI Conviction

David Chu [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via FlickrIn order to prove that a defendant has committed the offense of driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey, prosecutors do not necessarily have to provide direct proof that the defendant was driving, such as through testimony from an arresting officer that they saw the defendant driving erratically, or that they pulled the defendant over on suspicion of another traffic offense and noticed signs of intoxication. Under New Jersey law, the key element of a DWI offense is that a defendant has control of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Several recent decisions by the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division deal with situations where an arresting officer did not witness actual driving, but where the court still found the defendant guilty of DWI.

New Jersey’s DWI statute defines the offense, in part, as “operat[ing] a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug, or…with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or more…” While the plain meaning of these words suggests that the state must prove actual operation of a vehicle, New Jersey courts have held that it is enough to prove that a defendant was imminently capable of operating a vehicle, or that evidence suggests that they had been operating the vehicle before the arresting officer’s arrival on the scene.

Evidence supporting a DWI conviction could include testimony indicating that the vehicle could not have gotten into the position where the officer found it without the defendant driving it there, or something as simple as the officer finding the defendant in the driver’s seat of a stopped vehicle with the engine running. Municipal courts decide many cases based on the defendant’s own admission that they had been driving earlier.

The Appellate Division affirmed a DWI conviction in State v. Wallace based on a finding that the arresting officer’s testimony was credible and the defendant’s testimony was not. The officer stated that he found the defendant in the driver’s seat of her vehicle, which was stopped with the engine running in the drive-through lane of a fast food restaurant, and that the defendant displayed multiple physical signs of intoxication. The defendant testified that a friend had driven her to the restaurant, and that she had only driven from the parking spot to the drive-through lane. The court found this to be an admission of DWI.

Another recent decision, State v. Pouch-Mendola, similarly involved a defendant found asleep in a car with its engine running in a parking lot. The court found that the officer’s observations of the location of the vehicle, the defendant’s location in the driver’s seat, and the defendant’s appearance and demeanor were sufficient to establish the elements of a DWI offense. In State v. Akinola, the court held that police could establish that the defendant was driving by tracing the “trail of fresh fluid on the roadway” from the scene of a single-car collision to the defendant’s vehicle.

If you are facing a charge of alleged DWI in New Jersey, you need the assistance of an experienced and skilled DWI attorney, who can protect your rights and help you mount an effective defense. At Levow & Associates, we have dedicated 100% of our law practice to advocating for the rights of defendants in DWI cases, and we are available for you 24/7. Contact us online or at (877) 975-3399 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

New Jersey Appellate Court Reverses DWI Conviction, Finding Problems with Field Sobriety Tests, Other Evidence, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, May 3, 2015

DWI Appeal Claims Faulty Alcotest Machine Invalidates Conviction, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 13, 2015

Supreme Court Rules that Traffic Stop Was Lawful, Despite Police Officer’s Misunderstanding of Traffic Law, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, January 20, 2015

Photo credit: David Chu [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.