Uncounseled Guilty Plea Should Not Count as a Prior Offense in New Jersey DWI Case, According to Appellate Division

counselNew Jersey courts have established various rules that protect defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights in driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases. One such rule, established by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1990 in State v. Laurick, mitigates certain penalties imposed on a DWI defendant if they pleaded guilty in a prior DWI case without an attorney, and they were not given the opportunity to waive their right to counsel. The New Jersey Appellate Division applied this rule earlier this year in State v. Donnelly, reversing a DWI defendant’s jail sentence and remanding the case to the trial court.

Penalties for a DWI conviction vary, in part, based on a defendant’s number of prior DWI convictions. A first offense includes a penalty of up to 30 days in jail. For a second offense, state law imposes a minimum jail term of 48 hours, up to a maximum of 90 days. A third or subsequent offense carries a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 180 days. The Laurick decision set limits on courts’ ability to use prior uncounseled guilty pleas to impose enhanced jail sentences in DWI cases. The court cited a 1971 case, Rodriguez v. Rosenblatt, which held that defendants have a right to counsel whenever they face a “consequence of magnitude,” which includes a jail sentence of any length.

The defendant in Laurick was arrested for DWI in 1985. He had a prior DWI conviction from 1982, in which he pled guilty without an attorney. He stated that he was unaware of his right to counsel at that time, and that the court did not advise him of this right. He was sentenced in 1987 as a first offender with regard to the jail term, on the basis that the 1982 guilty plea should not count as a prior conviction. The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld this sentence in 1990.

The rule established by Laurick only applies to the jail portion of sentencing. A person is still a “repeat offender,” the Laurick court stated, with regard to any other consequence under state law. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 2005 in State v. Hrycak, for example, that a court must impose the statutory term of driver’s license suspension for a third offense, regardless of whether either prior guilty plea was uncounseled.

The defendant in Donnelly, appearing in municipal court in 2013, was facing his fifth DWI conviction. He pleaded guilty, and the court sentenced him as a fourth offender on the basis that his most recent prior conviction was more than 10 years old. The defendant claimed that he should be sentenced for a second offense, based on the age of the prior convictions and the Laurick rule. His third and fourth convictions, from 1986 and 1987, had both been treated as second convictions, but the defendant had no direct evidence that two of the prior convictions were uncounseled, or that he had not received notice of his right to counsel. The municipal court rejected his Laurick claim.

The Appellate Division reversed the lower courts. It noted that Laurick was decided after the defendant’s last DWI conviction, and the present case therefore offered his first chance to raise such a claim. It sent the case back to municipal court so that the defendant could restate his claim under Laurick.

A DWI arrest or charge in New Jersey can substantially affect your life. You should take steps to protect your rights with the help of an experienced and knowledgeable DWI attorney. Our practice is 100% DWI defense. Contact us online or at (877) 593-1717 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team.

More Blog Posts:

New Jersey Supreme Court Declines to Find that the Constitution Requires Jury Trials in Third-Offense DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 2, 2016

DWI Convictions from Outside New Jersey May Count Toward Priors Leading to Criminal Charge for Driving with a Suspended License, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, May 10, 2016

Consequences of DWI Conviction in New Jersey Extend Beyond License Suspension, Could Include Loss of Employment Benefits, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 19, 2016

Photo credit: Blue Diamond Gallery [CC BY-SA 3.0].