Understanding the Scope of Courts’ Authority in New Jersey DWI Appeals

AppealEvery defendant charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey is entitled to a trial by a municipal court judge. If a defendant believes that the municipal court has made an error in its verdict, they can appeal to the New Jersey Superior Court, Law Division. This court has the authority to conduct a new trial. From there, a defendant can appeal to the Appellate Division, and then to the New Jersey Supreme Court. These higher courts, however, are limited in their ability to review or reverse the factual findings of the lower courts, and they are often hesitant to second-guess a trial court’s conclusions. The Appellate Division reviewed these limitations in a March 2017 decision.

Municipal courts in New Jersey have jurisdiction over motor vehicle offenses, including DWI. A DWI case is assigned to the municipal court of the city, borough, town, or other municipality where the offense allegedly occurred. At trial, the municipal judge hears the arguments from the prosecution and the defendant, reviews the evidence, and renders a verdict. This is generally the only time the parties may present live witnesses, giving the municipal judge a unique perspective on the case.

According to Rule 3:23 of the New Jersey Rules of Court, a defendant has the right to appeal a DWI conviction in municipal court to the Law Division. This court may conduct a trial de novo, meaning that it is not bound by the municipal court’s factual or legal findings, and it may consider the case completely anew. That said, the Law Division typically only has access to the record of the proceedings in the municipal court. This includes all of the evidence presented at trial, but it does not include whatever understanding of the case may come from watching the testimony of witnesses in person. For this reason, courts are often unwilling to upset a municipal judge’s factual findings without evidence of a significant error.

In the case above, the defendant appealed convictions of DWI and refusal from the municipal court and the Law Division, claiming that the state did not prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and that the Law Division “erroneously deferred to the municipal court’s findings.” The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction, after noting several limitations on its authority.

The limitations identified by the Appellate Division are based more on precedent than on any statute or rule. The court cited a 1964 decision from the New Jersey Supreme Court, State v. Johnson, which held that the appellate court’s review is limited to whether there is “sufficient credible evidence present in the record” to support the verdict. If it concludes that the evidence was sufficient, the court “should not disturb the result,” even if “it has the feeling it might have reached a different conclusion” had it conducted the trial.

On legal questions, as opposed to findings of fact, the Appellate Division has far greater authority to review lower court decisions. The court cited another state supreme court decision, 2015’s State v. Kuropchak, which held that “legal conclusions are subject to de novo review” by the Appellate Division. Even then, however, Johnson held that a court should only reverse a decision if it finds that “the interests of justice demand intervention and correction.”

DWI appeals lawyer Evan Levow has practiced in New Jersey for over 20 years. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case with an experienced and knowledgeable advocate, 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 Appeals Court Orders Resentencing in DWI, Vehicular Homicide Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, September 23, 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

Photo credit: “Appeal” [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Blue Diamond Gallery.