Articles Posted in Blood Testing

New Jersey has developed an extensive body of law addressing the investigation and prosecution of suspected driving while intoxicated (DWI), at least when the substance in question is alcohol. Testing the amount of alcohol present in a person’s system, known as blood alcohol concentration (BAC), is a highly imperfect process, which is prone to constant errors. Despite its many flaws, it is still a better system than anything available for determining whether a driver was impaired by other drugs. Currently, New Jersey prosecutors pursuing alleged driving under the influence of drugs (DUID) must rely on (1) chemical tests with no specific threshold amount to determine impairment, and (2) the testimony of police officers purportedly trained to identify outward signs of intoxication by various drugs. As legislators continue to consider the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act (NJCREAMA), questions will continue to abound about how to enforce DUID laws involving marijuana, and how to defend people charged with that alleged offense. If you have been charged with a DWI, it is important that you speak with a New Jersey DWI attorney as soon as possible.

In cases involving alcohol, New Jersey’s “legal limit” of 0.08 percent BAC creates a presumption of impairment. This is often known as per se DWI. New Jersey law has no specific threshold amount for marijuana or any other drug in DUID cases. Police can seek a warrant to test samples of blood or urine, but that only indicates whether or not a suspect had a particular drug in their system at the time the sample was taken. Prosecutors usually must produce other evidence to establish impairment. This often involves testimony by police officers who receive specialized training as “drug recognition experts” (DREs).

In cases involving alleged marijuana impairment, chemical testing evidence and DRE testimony may conflict with one another. Marijuana can show up in blood or urine tests long after its effects have worn off. Several recent New Jersey cases have relied on chemical tests allegedly showing the presence of marijuana in a driver’s system, despite testimony from eyewitnesses, including police officers, who did not notice any signs of impairment.

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The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people from “unreasonable searches and seizures” that are not supported by probable cause. It generally requires law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant from a judge before they may conduct a search, seize property, or make an arrest. Courts have identified numerous exceptions to this requirement, however. In New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases, drivers give their implied consent to provide breath samples to police. A blood draw, however, is considered much more intrusive, and is not covered by the implied consent law. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued several rulings over the years on the question of whether police may order blood drawn from a DWI suspect without a warrant or the suspect’s consent. A ruling from June 2019, Mitchell v. Wisconsin, involved a warrantless blood draw on a suspect who was unconscious. The court vacated the conviction and remanded the case without a clear majority ruling, but five justices were inclined to support warrantless blood draws in certain situations.

If police obtain evidence in violation of someone’s Fourth Amendment rights, that person can ask a court to prevent the use of that evidence against them at trial. This is known as a motion to suppress. The state can offer various justifications for a warrantless search. The “exigent circumstances” exception has featured prominently in DWI cases involving warrantless blood draws. This exception allows police to conduct a search or seize property without a warrant when there is a significant risk of the loss or destruction of material evidence or contraband.

The Supreme Court took up the question of whether the exigent circumstances exception applies to warrantless blood draws in 2013, in Missouri v. McNeely. In a 5-4 ruling, the court found that the breakdown of alcohol in the human body over time is not, by itself, an “exigent circumstance” justifying a warrantless blood draw. It did not, however, foreclose all possibility of an exigent circumstance exception in the future.
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According to recent media reports, the number of convictions for driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey is decreasing, at least with regard to cases involving alcohol. The decline reportedly might be due to an increase in DWI cases involving marijuana and other controlled substances. New Jersey law provides no per se standard for impairment by marijuana or other drugs that is comparable to the standard for alcohol. A bill currently pending in the New Jersey Assembly, A2776, would establish a per se standard for marijuana in DWI cases. This bill, if enacted, would probably present both benefits and drawbacks for New Jersey DWI defendants.

New Jersey law creates a presumption of impairment if a defendant’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is at least 0.08 percent. This is often known as DWI per se. Since no similar standard exists for marijuana and other drugs, prosecutors must rely on testimony from police officers who have received training as “drug recognition experts” (DREs). Typically, a DRE-certified officer observes a defendant during or shortly after their arrest, and then forms an opinion of which substance(s) they took. The use of DRE testimony in court presents problems for defendants, given the wide gulf that often exists between the questionable scientific basis of their training and the weight that courts often give to police officers’ testimony.

Tests for marijuana look for specific compounds in the blood. Delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the active component of marijuana, but it can dissipate in the bloodstream within a few hours. As the body metabolizes THC, it produces a form of carboxylic acid known as delta 9-carboxy-THC (THC-COOH) as a metabolite. The presence of THC-COOH can determine if someone has recently used marijuana, but it is a less accurate method of establishing actual impairment.

Police, when investigating suspected driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases in New Jersey, must obtain a warrant, or a suspect’s consent, to collect blood samples under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The “exigent circumstances” exception allows warrantless searches when taking the time to obtain a warrant would create a significant risk that evidence will be lost or destroyed. New Jersey courts currently look at the “totality of the circumstances” when considering warrantless blood draws. A recent ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, State v. Zalcberg, considers this question in light of recent changes to the law and police officers’ accompanying uncertainty.

The New Jersey DWI statute allows the state to prove impairment based solely on a defendant’s blood alcohol content (BAC), making this sort of evidence very important to the state. Time is an important factor, since alcohol breaks down in the bloodstream over time. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the gradual dissipation of alcohol, by itself, is not an exigent circumstance for Fourth Amendment purposes in 2013’s Missouri v. McNeely.

In 2015’s State v. Adkins, the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted a rather narrow view of McNeely’s effect on New Jersey DWI cases. Cases decided after McNeely, including cases that were “in the pipeline” at the time McNeely was decided, are bound by that precedent. New Jersey municipal and trial courts could, however, give “substantial weight” to dissipation in determining whether the exigent circumstances should apply. While dissipation could not qualify as an exception to the warrant requirement on its own, the court effectively said that it was a major circumstance among the totality of the circumstances. This became important in Zalcberg.

New Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) statute allows law enforcement officials to obtain breath samples, for the purpose of measuring a suspect’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC), without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires police to obtain a warrant, supported by probable cause, before conducting a search. Multiple courts, however, have held that the collection of breath samples falls under an exception to the warrant requirement. One way to explain why a warrant is not required is that people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of their breath. This may seem a bit trite, but it makes some sense when compared to another method of measuring BAC, blood testing. Collection of a blood sample is indisputably invasive, so courts have held that a warrant is required in most cases.

Police do not have to obtain a warrant before conducting a search, according to a long line of court decisions, if “exigent circumstances” exist that risk the imminent loss or destruction of evidence. If, for example, a police officer has reason to believe that a person inside a residence is about to destroy contraband, such as by flushing it down the toilet, courts have held that they may enter the residence for the purpose of securing the contraband. The authority of police officers to search a vehicle without a warrant, known as the vehicular exception, is based on the same principle as exigent circumstances. Since a car is mobile, waiting to obtain a warrant risks the suspect fleeing the scene. An officer must still have probable cause to believe that the car contains contraband or evidence of a crime, but they do not necessarily have to have a warrant.

Drawing blood from a DWI suspect without a warrant, in order to test their BAC, has been justified by exigent circumstances in the past. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed this in its ruling in Schmerber v. California in 1966. The court significantly limited this practice, however, in a 2013 ruling, Missouri v. McNeely. Prosecutors had argued that the human body’s natural process of metabolizing alcohol, meaning that a person’s BAC steadily decreases over time, was an exigent circumstance allowing a warrantless blood draw. The Supreme Court rejected this argument. While it may still be possible to justify a warrantless blood draw based on exigent circumstances, the breakdown of alcohol in the bloodstream cannot, by itself, serve that purpose.

New Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) statute is not limited to impairment due to alcohol. The text of the statute also includes “narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug[s]” as substances that could cause impairment. The statute specifies a measurable amount of alcohol in one’s system that creates a presumption of impairment, but it does not do the same for any other drugs. This requires prosecutors to rely largely on eyewitness evidence from arresting officers, who may or may not have training in recognizing the signs of impairment by specific substances. If the alleged substance is illegal under state or federal drug laws, this might assist prosecutors. As more and more states pass laws allowing the use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, though, the issue is becoming more complicated. New Jersey may consider legislation to allow recreational marijuana use later in 2018, so law enforcement will have to address this issue soon.The New Jersey DWI statute establishes two methods of proving impairment. One method, sometimes known as “per se DWI,” presumes impairment if a defendant’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was at least 0.08 percent soon after they were allegedly operating a motor vehicle. The “implied consent” statute authorizes police to collect breath samples from anyone driving on New Jersey roads upon suspicion of DWI, and it makes refusal a separate traffic offense. Blood and urine samples may also indicate BAC, but these usually require a warrant or consent. The lack of any statutory guidelines for any drug other than alcohol means that prosecutors must pursue the other form of DWI, which requires proof of driving “while under the influence” of any of the list of substances mentioned earlier. Unlike BAC levels, this is a much more subjective question.

Some states have laws or regulations that specify an amount of marijuana, or other drugs, in one’s system that creates a presumption of impairment. For marijuana, the measurement is in nanograms of THC, the active component of marijuana, per milliliter of blood. Colorado, which was the first state to allow recreational use of marijuana, has set a limit of five nanograms per milliliter. In Pennsylvania, the “legal limit” for marijuana is one nanogram per milliliter. A debate is ongoing among scientists as to whether these numbers have any useful meaning with regard to impairment.

Other states, including New Jersey, rely on testimonial evidence to determine whether a drug impaired a defendant’s ability to drive. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed a conviction for DWI based on impairment by marijuana in State v. Bealor in 2006. The court held that, while lay opinions as to intoxication by alcohol may be admissible, they are not necessarily admissible for other drugs because the signs of impairment by drugs are not as well-known to the public as the signs of drunkenness. In this case, the arresting officers testified that the defendant’s “eyes were bloodshot and glassy,” that he moved slowly and had slurred speech, and that the smell of “burnt marijuana” emanated from the car. Tests of the defendant’s urine showed the presence of marijuana. These two pieces of evidence, the court held, were enough to support the conviction, even without expert witness testimony.

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.

The state has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases. A defense attorney’s job, in part, is to identify defects or deficiencies in the state’s case. DWI cases often require a considerable amount of documentation. Under the DWI statute, a person is guilty of DWI if they operate a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or while their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is at least 0.08 percent. Police can determine BAC by testing samples of breath, blood, or urine. Breath testing is most common, followed by blood. Each type of testing requires proof that police followed specific procedures. The evidence must meet standards set by the New Jersey Rules of Evidence (NJRE), state law, and court decisions.

Authentication of Documents

In a courtroom, BAC evidence generally takes the form of written reports. In the case of breath testing, this is usually a series of reports generated by the Alcotest device. BAC results obtained from blood samples involve reports from the laboratory that performed the test. NJRE 901 requires authentication of all documents offered as evidence, meaning evidence that the document is, in fact, what the party offering it claims it is. This can be accomplished by having the person who created the document authenticate it in sworn testimony. Some documents are “self-authenticating,” as described by NJRE 902.

New Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) statute allows the state to prove that a defendant was impaired by alcohol with the results of blood alcohol content (BAC) testing. A BAC of 0.08 percent or higher creates a legal presumption of impairment. Police can determine BAC by testing a sample of breath, blood, or urine. Breath testing is considered to be the least intrusive. Blood and urine tests must follow the rules established by the Fourth Amendment for searches. A defendant can challenge the admissibility of BAC evidence by establishing a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision specifically addressed warrantless blood draws in DWI cases. The New Jersey Appellate Division cited that decision earlier this year in State v. Smijean, reversing a DWI conviction that involved BAC evidence from a warrantless blood draw.

Breath testing for BAC requires a person to blow into a tube attached to a testing device commonly known as a breathalyzer. Most New Jersey police departments use a device known as an Alcotest. Submission of a breath sample is mandatory for anyone who drives on a public road in New Jersey, and refusal to submit a breath sample upon request by law enforcement is a separate motor vehicle offense.

Since breath testing only requires blowing into a tube, it is not considered a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. Blood testing, however, is considered intrusive enough to fall under the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on warrantless searches. Drawing a person’s blood therefore requires that person’s consent or a warrant issued by a judge. In a general sense, police may be able to conduct a search without a warrant if they can establish that “exigent circumstances” made it impractical to obtain a warrant first, usually because of the risk of loss or destruction of evidence. How this exception applies in DWI cases has been a matter of dispute.

The legal standards in New Jersey for proving impairment by alcohol in cases of alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) are fairly well established. Prosecutors can offer evidence of a defendant’s alleged blood alcohol content (BAC), or they can introduce eyewitness and expert testimony. The DWI statute does not only apply to alcohol, however. It also makes it an offense to drive while “under the influence of…[a] narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug.” New Jersey has no equivalent to the BAC limit of 0.08 percent for drugs. A handful of states have established “legal limits” for certain drugs, but no consistent standards exist. Furthermore, breath testing cannot establish the amount of any particular drug in a person’s system, meaning that the state must rely on blood and urine testing. As legal marijuana becomes more prevalent in various parts of the country, these inconsistencies are likely to become clearer.

Under New Jersey law, a driver commits a DWI offense if they operate a vehicle with a BAC of at least 0.08 percent. This is sometimes known as DWI per se, since the state can meet its burden of proof based solely on BAC evidence and evidence that the defendant actually was driving or imminently intended to drive. Prosecutors can also establish guilt without BAC evidence—or occasionally with test results showing a BAC of less than 0.08 percent—through testimony and other evidence. This often includes testimony from police officers who observed a defendant’s demeanor and appearance, particularly if the defendant was driving erratically, had slurred speech, or otherwise displayed outward signs of intoxication by alcohol.

The DWI statute does not mention any specific drug other than alcohol, but courts have interpreted it to mean both illegal drugs and legal drugs that can affect a person’s ability to drive or operate machinery. They have held that eyewitness and expert testimony is sufficient to prove impairment by drugs. In 1975, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in State v. Tamburro that the state must offer evidence that a defendant’s “conduct, physical and mental condition and the symptoms displayed” are consistent with the effects of a narcotic. If the state meets this burden, the court held, it does not have to identify any specific narcotic. The court held in 2006’s State v. Bealor that, unlike in cases involving alcohol intoxication, lay testimony alone is not sufficient to establish impairment by marijuana or other drugs. Police officers with proper training, according to the court, may offer expert testimony.

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