Can a New Jersey DWI Defendant Claim “Insanity” in Court?

Defendants charged with criminal offenses in New Jersey can raise a variety of defenses. These are specific claims or arguments asserting that, even if the allegations against the defendant are correct, the defendant is not criminally liable. Many defenses are derived from the common law, and the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice (CCJ) also defines various defenses. Since driving while intoxicated (DWI) is an offense under the Motor Vehicle Code, rather than the CCJ, courts have addressed whether common-law defenses are available in DWI cases on a case-by-case basis. The insanity defense involves the claim that a defendant was incapable of understanding the wrongful nature of their conduct at the time. A Law Division court considered the question of how this might apply to a DWI case at some length in State v. Inglis in 1997.

Insanity is a common-law affirmative defense in New Jersey. When a defendant raises a defense in a criminal case, the prosecution must rebut the defense as a part of their burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. An affirmative defense, however, partially shifts the burden to the defendant, who must prove the elements of the defense by a preponderance of the evidence.

New Jersey uses the M’Naghten rule to identify what a defendant raising the insanity defense must prove in court. The rule derives from an 1843 English case in which the defendant killed the British Prime Minister’s secretary, falsely believing that the secretary was involved in a conspiracy against him. Under this rule, everyone is presumed to be sane, unless they can prove that, at the time of the offense, they suffered from a “defect of reason” or “disease of the mind,” which kept them from either “know[ing] the nature and quality of” their actions, or from “know[ing] what [they were] doing was wrong.” This is, by design, a difficult standard of proof.

The Inglis court uses the term “pretextual defense” to describe the insanity defense. The purpose of most defenses is to challenge the most fundamental basis for criminal liability:  that a defendant behaved with a criminal state of mind, such as by intending to commit a specific offense or by acting with recklessness or criminally gross negligence. These are all specific legal terms to describe a defendant’s state of mind. As the court notes in Inglis, the DWI statute makes no mention of a defendant’s state of mind.

The defendant in Inglis was arrested and charged with DWI after his car collided with a toll booth on the New Jersey Turnpike. A blood test at the hospital showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.40 percent, which is closer to a fatal level than the legal limit. At trial, the defendant raised the insanity defense and offered evidence that he suffered from bipolar disorder—i.e., a “disease of the mind.”

Because of depression and suicidal thoughts associated with his condition, the defendant claimed that “he did not know that what he was doing, namely operating a motor vehicle while drinking, was wrong.” The court ruled that the state legislature intended DWI to be a “per se offense,” meaning that guilt is based only on evidence of intoxication or impairment, rather than the defendant’s state of mind. The insanity defense was therefore not available.

DWI attorney Evan Levow has practiced law in New Jersey for more than 20 years. Contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717 to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case with a knowledgeable and experienced advocate.

More Blog Posts:

BAC of 0.08 Percent or Higher Not Always Necessary to Prove DWI, New Jersey Court Rules, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 8, 2016

Defendant in New Jersey DWI Case Challenges Admissibility of Alcotest Results, Claiming Spoliation of Evidence, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, August 22, 2016

New Jersey Appellate Court Considers DWI Defendant’s “Confusion” Defense, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, August 16, 2016

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