Does the Legal Presumption of Intoxication in Some DWI Cases Violate Due Process?

Unbalanced scalesDriving while intoxicated (DWI) is a traffic offense, rather than a criminal offense, under New Jersey law. Most—although not all—of the protections offered in criminal prosecutions by the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions apply to DWI cases. The guarantee of due process in legal proceedings, found in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, is one of the most important protections. New Jersey’s DWI statute creates a legal presumption of intoxication for anyone whose blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.08 percent or higher. The New Jersey Appellate Division discussed whether this violates due process back in 1959, in State v. Protokowicz. Despite its age, the case still has relevance to DWI defense today.

The term “due process” generally means the right to fair legal proceedings. The U.S. Constitution states twice that no one may “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Courts have interpreted the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause to apply to the federal government, while the Fourteenth Amendment applies to the states. The New Jersey Constitution also provides for due process in Article I, section 1, stating that “[a]ll persons…have certain natural and unalienable rights,” including “those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, [and] of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property.”

The New Jersey DWI statute defines the offense in two ways. A person commits the offense if (1) they “operate[] a motor vehicle while under the influence” of alcohol or drugs, or (2) drive with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher. In the second type of DWI, BAC evidence creates a presumption that a defendant was “under the influence.” State laws requiring drivers to submit to breath testing facilitate the collection of BAC evidence. Since this presumption seems to put a DWI defendant at a disadvantage from the very beginning, does it pose due process problems?

The defendant in Protokowicz appealed his DWI conviction, partly on the ground that the legal presumption of intoxication based on BAC violated his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and the New Jersey Constitution. At that time, New Jersey law discussed the presumption more explicitly. While current law creates a presumption of intoxication for a BAC of 0.08 or higher, the law in 1959 applied the presumption to a BAC of 0.15 percent or higher. A BAC of 0.05 percent or less created a presumption against intoxication, and a BAC between 0.05 and 0.15 percent could support a finding of guilt when presented “with other competent evidence.”

The Appellate Division rejected the due process claim. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tot v. United States (1943) that a statutory presumption must have a “rational connection between the fact proved and the ultimate fact presumed.” In Breithaupt v. Abram (1957), the Supreme Court held that BAC evidence is a “scientifically accurate” means of establishing intoxication under the law. The Appellate Division found this sufficient to find that the BAC presumption does not violate due process. It also noted that other states had already reached similar conclusions, such as the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling in State v. Childress (1954). The Appellate Division’s ruling ultimately rests on the question of scientific accuracy.

Defending against charges of alleged DWI in a New Jersey municipal court requires careful planning and preparation. DWI attorney Evan Levow can help you understand your legal rights and guide you through the court process. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team, contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717.

More Blog Posts:

New Jersey Appellate Court Considers Warrantless Blood Draw and Credibility Questions in DWI Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 14, 2016

Conditional Guilty Plea Required in New Jersey DWI Cases to Preserve Certain Issues for Appeal, According to Court, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 15, 2016

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

Photo credit: Walks on Water (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.