New Jersey Appellate Court Rules that Evidence in DWI Trial Was Insufficient

Ngarigo campgroundIn any trial for a criminal or motor vehicle offense in New Jersey, the state has the burden of proving each element of the offense, as defined by statute, beyond a reasonable doubt. If the state fails to prove every element of a charged offense, a judge or jury is obligated to acquit the defendant. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently reversed a conviction for driving while intoxicated (DWI), finding in State v. DeCicco that the prosecution failed to prove an essential element of the offense at trial.

The elements of an offense typically consist of factual circumstances, such as a particular act by the defendant at a particular time and place, and a mental state, such as proof that the defendant acted with intent rather than with negligence. Mental state, also known as mens rea, is not a required element of DWI in New Jersey, although courts sometimes accept evidence of “intent to drive” in the absence of evidence that a defendant was actually driving. At a minimum, prosecutors must prove two essential elements of DWI:

(1) the act of “operat[ing] a motor vehicle”; and
(2) the commission of that act in one of two circumstances:  (a) “while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug,” or (b) with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent.

According to the Appellate Division’s ruling in DeCicco, a state trooper arrived at a campground after midnight, in response to a report of an “erratic driver.” The trooper observed the defendant’s vehicle “parked in a field…not on a roadway or paved parking area.” He testified that he observed the defendant “in the driver’s seat holding a can of beer in his hand.” The engine was not running, although the keys were in the ignition. The officer testified that he “heard a ‘crackling sound’ coming from the engine.” He took that to mean that the engine had recently been used, but he conceded on cross-examination that the defendant might have turned on the engine solely to run the vehicle’s air conditioning.

The defendant reportedly admitted that he had driven to the campground, and he stated that he had consumed several beers about seven hours earlier. The officer arrested him after he reportedly failed field sobriety tests. The municipal judge convicted the defendant of DWI, partly on the grounds that the defendant had admitted to driving to the campground, there was evidence of the engine having recently been running, and the judge found the defendant’s “intent to drive.” The Law Division upheld this verdict.

The Appellate Division took the unusual step of overruling the lower courts’ factual findings. Since the state produced no eyewitness evidence of the defendant operating the vehicle, it had to prove that the defendant had either recently driven or intended to drive while intoxicated. The defendant’s admission to driving to the campsite did not meet this requirement, the court held, since it did not “establish a clear timeline to substantiate that defendant was, in fact, intoxicated when he drove.” The court ruled that it was merely “speculative to infer from these limited proofs” that the defendant had driven while drunk, as opposed to driving to the campsite and then getting drunk.

New Jersey DWI lawyer Evan Levow has defended people in the courts of this state for over two decades. He can help you understand your rights, guide you through the municipal court system, and advocate for your interests. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you, contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717.

More Blog Posts:

Prosecutor Appeals New Jersey Court’s Approval of DWLS Defendant’s Request for Pretrial Intervention, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 4, 2016

New Jersey Appellate Division Reverses Criminal DWLS Convictions Based on Recent Precedential Decision, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 2, 2016

New Jersey Driver Found Sleeping in His Car Acquitted of DWI After Judge Finds Prosecutors Failed to Prove He Intended to Drive, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, July 24, 2016

Photo credit: Steve Bennett (stevage) (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.