Evidence in New Jersey DWI Cases, Part 3: Consciousness of Guilt

PuzzledUnder the laws of New Jersey, driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a motor vehicle offense, rather than a criminal offense. A DWI proceeding still resembles a criminal case in many ways. Just as in a criminal case, prosecutors have the burden of proving every element of the offense of DWI beyond a reasonable doubt. DWI trials in New Jersey take place in municipal courts, with the municipal judge hearing the evidence and reaching a verdict. Prosecutors can introduce various forms of evidence, including certain actions and statements by a defendant that indicate a “consciousness of guilt.” Evidence that a defendant believed themselves to be guilty is not enough, by itself, for a conviction, but it can provide strong support for the state’s case. New Jersey courts have developed a series of rules regarding consciousness of guilt in criminal cases in general, and in DWI cases in particular.

Many criminal statutes include a particular mental state, known as mens rea, or “guilty mind,” as an element of the offense that the state must prove. Perhaps the most well-known example is the legal difference between murder and manslaughter. The offense of murder requires proof that a defendant acted with intent, meaning that they intended to kill their victim. Manslaughter involves reckless or negligent conduct by a defendant that results in someone’s death. Evidence of “consciousness of guilt” can support the state’s theory about a defendant’s “guilty mind.” The New Jersey Supreme Court reviewed some types of evidence of consciousness of guilt in a 1993 ruling, State v. Mann. Fleeing or escaping from custody for the purpose of “avoid[ing] accusation [and]…prosecution,” the court held, could be evidence of consciousness of guilt.

The New Jersey DWI statute’s definition of the offense makes no mention of mens rea. The state does not have to prove that a defendant intended to commit DWI, or even that they knew that they were impaired. Municipal judges may still infer consciousness of guilt from certain acts by DWI defendants. State law requires DWI suspects to provide breath samples to police, and it treats refusal as a distinct offense. In certain circumstances, refusal to submit to breath testing could also serve as evidence of consciousness of guilt. The New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that a defendant’s refusal was admissible as evidence in a DWI trial in State v. Tabisz in 1974. The New Jersey Supreme Court further affirmed this in 1987 in State v. Stever.

The rulings in Tabisz and Stever were based, in large part, on the mandatory nature of breath testing under New Jersey law. Police may not compel a DWI suspect to provide a blood sample without a warrant. Refusing to provide a blood sample is therefore not a separate offense, like refusing to submit a breath sample, but the courts have crafted an “unreasonable” refusal, which they inexplicably reason could be evidence of consciousness of guilt. Notwithstanding an arrestee’s constitutional right to remain silent, the Appellate Division in State v. Cryan found that the refusal to consent to a blood draw “was an intentional and calculated act” because the “defendant believed himself to be intoxicated and that an analysis of his blood would have confirmed this.”

The Appellate Division further inexplicably widened the mythical conclusions utilized to convict those charged with DWI. The court held that a refusal to perform field sobriety tests could “be considered as further evidence of…intoxication” in State v. Bryant in 2000.

With over 20 years of experience in the New Jersey court system, DWI lawyer Evan Levow can advise you of your rights and defend you against the state’s charges. Contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

More Blog Posts:

Evidence in New Jersey DWI Cases, Part 2: Chemical Testing, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 28, 2017

Evidence in New Jersey DWI Cases, Part 1: Testimony, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 19, 2017

Alleged Mishandling of DWI Evidence by New Jersey Law Enforcement Official Could Affect Thousands of Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 2, 2017

Photo credit: Christophe Dioux (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.