New Jersey Supreme Court Declines to Find that the Constitution Requires Jury Trials in Third-Offense DWI Cases

The_Jury_(1861)The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a trial by jury in criminal cases, but courts have never applied this guarantee to all prosecutions. A defendant charged with a “petty” offense is not entitled to a jury trial, according to a long line of court decisions at both the state and federal levels. New Jersey courts have long held that jury trials are not required in driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases. A DWI defendant sought to revisit this issue in 2016, arguing that amendments to New Jersey’s DWI statute had made third-offense DWI a “serious” offense, rather than a petty one. The New Jersey Supreme Court, ruling in State v. Denelsbeck, rejected this argument, but it warned that the statute’s current penalties were the maximum possible for a petty offense.

Even though the Sixth Amendment, as written, does not appear to exclude any criminal proceedings from its guarantee of a jury trial, court rulings going back to the 19th century and earlier have held that it does not apply to petty offenses. The term “petty offense” has never had a distinct definition. In a 1937 ruling, District of Columbia v. Clawans, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a petty offense may be identified, in part, by the “severity of the punishment” associated with the offense. The court held in Baldwin v. New York (1970) that an offense with a potential penalty of more than six months’ imprisonment cannot “be deemed ‘petty’ for purposes of the right to trial by jury.”

A 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Blanton v. N. Las Vegas, found that a jury trial was not required under Nevada’s DWI statute, in part because the maximum term of imprisonment was six months. The court held that the maximum term of imprisonment is the most important factor in determining whether an offense is “petty.” It allowed for the possibility, however, that additional penalties attached to a maximum jail sentence of six months or less could turn a “petty” offense into a “serious” one. This was the defendant’s central claim in Denelsbeck.

The maximum possible penalty for a third DWI offense in New Jersey includes six months in jail. The New Jersey Supreme Court followed Blanton in its 1990 decision in State v. Hamm, which held that a third DWI offense is a petty offense for Sixth Amendment purposes. At that time, a third DWI offense could result in six months in jail, a license suspension for 10 years, and fines and other monetary penalties.

The New Jersey Legislature has amended the DWI statute since 1990 to include additional penalties. A six-month jail sentence is now mandatory, as is the use of an ignition interlock device. In Denelsbeck, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that these amendments to the DWI law changed third-offense DWI from a “petty” to a “serious” offense. It focused on the fact that the maximum jail sentence does not exceed six months, and it also found that the additional penalties do not reach the point where a jury trial becomes mandatory.

Although the court ruled against the defendant, it warned the New Jersey Legislature that it “has reached the outer limit of what is permitted without a jury trial.” If the Legislature adds any more penalties, the court stated, defendants could become entitled to a jury trial.

If you have been arrested for alleged DWI in New Jersey, you should consult with a knowledgeable and experienced DWI attorney. At Levow DWI Law, we can help you understand your rights under the law and defend you in court. Contact us online or at (877) 593-1717 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team. We are available to help you 24/7.

More Blog Posts:

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

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: John Morgan (Public Catalogue Foundation) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.