Defendant in New Jersey DWI Case Raises “Double Jeopardy” Claim During Appeal

By Beinecke Library [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsThe Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that a person may not, “for the same offense…be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” This is known as the “double jeopardy” clause of the Constitution. Courts have interpreted it to mean—in a very general sense—that the government cannot charge a person with a criminal offense if they have been acquitted or convicted of an offense based on the same act or incident. The New Jersey Appellate Division, in State v. Sorenson, recently considered a DWI defendant’s claim that double jeopardy barred the prosecution’s appeal. A common misconception about double jeopardy is that it prevents the state from appealing any ruling in a criminal case, since it often does not apply to non-final judgments in trial courts.

The double jeopardy clause states that prosecutors cannot charge someone for the same offense more than once. Each phrase in the clause, particularly the phrase “twice put in jeopardy,” has been subject to extensive judicial scrutiny. Double jeopardy unquestionably applies once a person has been acquitted or convicted of a particular offense. For example, if a person is charged with DWI and acquitted (or convicted) by a municipal court, the state cannot charge that person with DWI again for the same incident. Prosecutors also could not appeal the acquittal itself.

When a case does not result in a final judgment of conviction or acquittal, however, double jeopardy becomes much more complicated. If a court dismisses a case based on a defendant’s pre-trial motion, the prosecution might be able to appeal that order. If an appellate court rules in the state’s favor, the case would proceed as though the dismissal had not occurred.

The defendant in Sorenson entered a conditional guilty plea to DWI, which means that she reserved the right to appeal part of the court’s ruling. She did not dispute the arresting officer’s account of her appearance and demeanor, essentially conceding that she was guilty of an “observational violation.” The state, however, charged her with DWI with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10 percent or above, known as a “per se violation,” which carries higher penalties for a first offense. Alcotest results showed a BAC of 0.12 percent.

The defendant moved to suppress the Alcotest results, arguing that they were inadmissible because police did not provide her with a copy of the device’s Alcohol Influence Report (AIR) at the police station, as required by the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Chun. The municipal court denied the motion, convicted her of DWI, and sentenced her for a per se violation.

The Law Division, hearing the case on appeal, granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the Alcotest evidence, finding that police violated Chun by not giving her a copy of the AIR until trial. This resulted in the imposition of a lower sentence consistent with the defendant’s guilty plea to an observational violation.

When prosecutors appealed this ruling to the Appellate Division, the defendant argued that, under double jeopardy, her guilty plea to an observational violation barred prosecutors from appealing on their per se violation claim. The Appellate Division rejected this argument, finding that the defendant’s conditional guilty plea, followed by her decision to appeal, rendered the verdict non-final for double jeopardy purposes. The court also reversed the Law Division’s order granting the defendant’s motion to suppress, finding than Chun does not require police to provide a copy of the AIR to a defendant in such a short time frame.

Defending against a DWI charge in New Jersey requires careful preparation, with close attention to the facts of each particular case and how New Jersey law might apply. At Levow DWI Law, we have dedicated 100% of our practice to DWI defense, and we are available 24/7 to assist you. Contact us online or at (877) 593-1717 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case.

More Blog Posts:

The Fifth Amendment Privilege Against Self-Incrimination in New Jersey DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, September 30, 2015

Court Rules on Right Against Self-Incrimination, Right to Jury Trial in New Jersey DWI Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 27, 2015

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

Photo credit: Beinecke Library [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.