New Jersey Appellate Court Considers Warrantless Blood Draw and Credibility Questions in DWI Case

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A defendant in a New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) case can appeal a negative outcome, but appellate courts are limited in their authority to review some lower court actions. A recent decision by the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division illustrates two important issues in a DWI defense. The defendant in State v. Hernandez challenged the evidence that she was intoxicated, arguing that police had her blood drawn without a warrant in violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. She also, at one point in the appeal, challenged the trial court’s findings regarding the credibility of her testimony as compared to several police officers’ testimony. Limitations on the appellate court’s ability to review factual findings, as well as the timeliness of the defendant’s objections, largely determined the court’s ruling.

The “exigent circumstances” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement allows police to conduct a warrantless search if they reasonably believe that there is a substantial risk of the loss or destruction of evidence. Police have used this exception to justify drawing blood from a DWI suspect without a warrant. In 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Missouri v. McNeely that the human body’s natural process of metabolizing alcohol is not an “exigent circumstance” justifying a warrantless blood draw. Police can still establish legitimate justifications for warrantless blood draws, but McNeely set a much higher standard than before.

With regard to questions of fact, such as the credibility of trial witnesses, New Jersey courts have generally held that the trial court, which has direct access to all of the witnesses and materials, is in the best position to assess questions like whether a police officer’s testimony or a defendant’s account of events is more credible. Appellate courts, which in New Jersey DWI cases include both the Law Division and the Appellate Division, do not have the same access to the evidence. They therefore are extremely reluctant to second-guess a trial court’s findings of fact, unless there is evidence that a trial court significantly abused its authority. Appellate courts owe very little deference to trial courts, however, on questions of law, such as whether a situation described by the evidence rises to the level of a criminal or motor vehicle offense.

The defendant in Hernandez was involved in a single-car accident on the night of her arrest. Police officers who responded to the scene testified that she admitted to driving the car and that her passenger corroborated this. At trial, however, the defendant testified that her passenger was actually driving. She claimed that he told her to get in the driver’s seat after the accident for her own safety so that she would not be sitting right next to the road. She claimed that she told the officers that she was driving “because she was drunk.”

The trial court found the officers’ testimony credible and discounted the defendant’s testimony. Both the Law and the Appellate Divisions declined to disturb these findings. The Appellate Division also dismissed her claim that the warrantless blood draw violated her rights. It noted that she had stipulated to the admission of the test results at trial and had not raised the Fourth Amendment objection in either the trial court or the Law Division. The court essentially found that she had waived that objection.

DWI attorney Evan M. Levow has dedicated his entire law practice to defending the rights of people charged with alleged DWI in New Jersey courts. Contact us online or at (877) 593-1717 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a skilled and experienced DWI defense advocate. We are available to help you 24/7.

More Blog Posts:

Use of High Beams Does Not Justify Traffic Stop, According to New Jersey Supreme Court, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, September 29, 2016

New Jersey Appeals Court Orders Resentencing in DWI, Vehicular Homicide Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, September 23, 2016

New Jersey Courts Can Convict a Defendant of DWI Even Without Direct Evidence that They Were Driving, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, August 30, 2016

Photo credit: Merle9999 [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.