New Jersey Appellate Division Vacates Sentence in DWI Case Because of Unusual Procedural History, “Actual Vindictiveness” of Municipal Court Judge

New Jersey laws regarding driving while intoxicated (DWI) include the act itself and multiple related offenses, including driving while one’s license is suspended (DWLS) and refusal to submit to breath testing. State law imposes harsher penalties for second and subsequent offenses, but it also mitigates these penalties in some situations. Merely having prior convictions therefore does not necessarily mean that a defendant must receive an enhanced penalty. A decision from the New Jersey Appellate Division in September 2015, State v. Jones, involved a defendant with a particularly complicated history of prior convictions. This made determining a proper sentence quite difficult.traffic-jam-1447333

The Jones case involves all three types of offenses commonly associated with DWI:  DWI itself, DWLS, and refusal. DWI and refusal are both considered traffic offenses under New Jersey law rather than criminal offenses. The penalty for a first-time DWI offense is based, in part, on the defendant’s blood alcohol content (BAC). A second offense may involve a higher fine, a jail term, and the installation of an ignition interlock device, regardless of BAC. For a third or subsequent offense, the potential fine and jail term are even higher, also regardless of BAC. A DWI at any level leads to a mandatory period of a driver’s license suspension. DWLS can become a criminal offense in certain situations, partly based on the number of prior DWI convictions, with a mandatory 180-day jail sentence.

New Jersey courts have established certain requirements for guilty pleas in DWI cases, largely due to the potentially unforeseen consequences of pleading guilty with prior convictions. One very important rule, established by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1990 in State v. Laurick, states that a prior conviction may not be used to enhance a subsequent jail sentence if the prior conviction violated a defendant’s constitutional rights. The most common way defendants use this rule is when they did not have counsel for a prior guilty plea. Another case from the New Jersey Supreme Court, 1989’s State v. Barboza, established minimal standards for the entry of a guilty plea by an uncounseled defendant.

The defendant in Jones has three DWI-related cases in his past:  a 2008 conviction for DWI and refusal, a 2010 conviction for second-offense DWI, and a 2012 citation for DWLS. A grand jury indicted the defendant for criminal DWLS based on the 2012 arrest and the prior convictions, but the court does not mention the outcome of that case. The recent appeal arose from the 2008 case.

In 2013, presumably while the DWLS case was still pending, the defendant moved for post-conviction relief in the 2008 case, arguing that his guilty plea was insufficient under Laurick and Barboza. The municipal court agreed and vacated the conviction. In the revived case, the prosecutor dropped the DWI charge, and the defendant pleaded guilty to refusal. The judge sentenced him as a second-time offender, based on the 2010 conviction.

The defendant appealed, arguing that the municipal court should have sentenced him based on the circumstances that existed in 2008, when he had no prior convictions. When the case reached the Appellate Division, the state conceded this point. The Appellate Division therefore remanded the case for resentencing. It declined, however, to declare that the defendant was not a “second offender,” stating that this would require it to exceed its authority by reviewing the 2010 conviction.

A knowledgeable and experienced New Jersey DWI attorney can help you understand your rights and defend you against an alleged DWI charge. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team, contact Levow DWI Law today online or at (877) 975-3399.

More Blog Posts:

Grounds for Post-Conviction Relief in New Jersey DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 14, 2015

New Jersey Appellate Court Finds Guilty Plea Insufficient in DWI Case from 11 Years Ago, Orders New Trial, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, July 16, 2015

New Jersey Considers “Excusable Neglect” Argument by Defendant Who Sought Post-Conviction Relief More than Two Decades After DWI Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, July 1, 2015

Photo credit: By Caseyjonz (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.