Under 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.