Articles Posted in Defending the Case

the lawThe legal treatment of driving while intoxicated (DWI) varies from one state to another, with some states categorizing it as a criminal offense and others, including New Jersey, calling it a traffic or motor vehicle offense. Several recent media reports have questioned whether New Jersey’s DWI laws are “tough enough,” pointing to the risks allegedly posed by repeat offenders. The New Jersey Legislature has revised and amended the DWI statute many times, and several bills are currently pending that would increase some penalties and reduce others. A key question to consider when discussing the “toughness” of DWI laws is whether the purpose of these laws is to punish people who violate the law, prevent people from violating the law in the future, or some combination of the two. This particular dispute is at least as old as the legal system itself.

Every state defines DWI, in part, as driving with blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. The differences between treating DWI as a criminal or traffic offense include the procedures courts must follow at trial, and the possible punishments resulting from a conviction. A DWI conviction in New Jersey, by itself, results in license suspension and a fine, as well as the possibility of jail time. A first-time offender with BAC of at least 0.15 percent must also install an ignition interlock device (IID) in their vehicle, both during and after the period of suspension. Second, third, and subsequent offenses also carry greater possible penalties, up to a maximum fine of $1,000, license suspension of ten years, and 180 days in jail.

In states where DWI is considered a criminal offense, penalties may be greater than in New Jersey, in terms of fine amount and length of jail sentence. The specific code section dealing with DWI in New Jersey, however, is not the only one involved in DWI enforcement. The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Code includes provisions penalizing drivers for refusing to submit to breath testing and for driving with a suspended license, as well as for circumstances like DWI with a minor passenger in the vehicle.
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Roman dieNew Jersey law imposes increasingly harsh penalties for subsequent convictions of driving while intoxicated (DWI) and refusal to submit to breath testing. Penalties for both offenses may include fines, a driver’s license suspension, and the mandatory use of an ignition interlock device. A conviction for DWI may also involve jail time. State law includes “step-down” provisions, however, that lessen the severity of a sentence if a sufficient amount of time has passed since the most recent prior conviction. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled on an appeal involving a defendant’s refusal conviction, which followed three DWI convictions. The court’s ruling in State v. Clapper considered whether the step-down provisions, which only mention second and third DWI offenses, apply to subsequent refusal offenses.

The New Jersey DWI statute imposes progressively harsher penalties for (1) a first DWI conviction involving a blood alcohol content (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent but less than 0.10 percent, (2) a first offense involving a BAC of 0.10 percent or higher, (3) a second offense, and (4) a third or subsequent offense. The refusal statute imposes increasing penalties for (1) first, (2) second, and (3) third or subsequent offenses. Prior DWI convictions may be used to enhance the sentence for a refusal conviction, according to the Appellate Division’s 2015 ruling in State v. Taylor, but prior refusal convictions may not be used to enhance a DWI conviction.

Under the step-down provisions, if a second DWI offense occurs more than 10 years after the first, the court must impose the sentence for a first offense. Likewise, if a third offense occurs more than 10 years after the second, the court must treat it as a second offense. This applies to both DWI and refusal convictions under the system described in Taylor. Notably, the step-down provisions do not mention subsequent convictions after a third one.

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brainDefendants 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.

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scroll certificateIn criminal prosecutions, the state has the burden of proving a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is an intentionally difficult burden, designed to protect the rights described in the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Although driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a motor vehicle offense in New Jersey, rather than a criminal one, most of these protections apply in DWI cases. Defendants can challenge the admissibility or sufficiency of the state’s evidence before or during trial. They can also challenge evidence on appeal or in a motion for post-conviction relief (PCR), especially if new information becomes available. Recent allegations of records tampering against an officer of the New Jersey State Police may create ample opportunities for such challenges, since the allegedly fraudulent records potentially affect 20,000 DWI cases statewide.

The New Jersey Rules of Evidence govern the use of evidence in court proceedings. One of the most important rules involves statements made outside the presence of a judge or jury, which are known as “hearsay.” A statement is considered inadmissible hearsay when it is “offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” In plain English, a police officer can testify about their own personal observations of the defendant but not about statements made by other people. Public records kept in the ordinary course of government business, such as reports generated by an Alcotest device, are generally excepted from the hearsay rule. This exception, however, is subject to some exceptions of its own.

A 2007 decision by the New Jersey Appellate Division, State v. Kent, addressed the use of documentary evidence in a DWI case. The court held that a chemist report describing the results of a blood test is inadmissible at trial if the defendant does not have the opportunity to cross-examine the individual who prepared the report. The case drew on the Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling in Crawford v. Washington, which addressed the admissibility of written statements or reports that are deemed “testimonial” and therefore subject to the hearsay exclusion.

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drunk driving

A defendant in a New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) case can appeal a negative outcome, but appellate courts are limited in their authority to review some lower court actions. A recent decision by the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division illustrates two important issues in a DWI defense. The defendant in State v. Hernandez challenged the evidence that she was intoxicated, arguing that police had her blood drawn without a warrant in violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. She also, at one point in the appeal, challenged the trial court’s findings regarding the credibility of her testimony as compared to several police officers’ testimony. Limitations on the appellate court’s ability to review factual findings, as well as the timeliness of the defendant’s objections, largely determined the court’s ruling.

The “exigent circumstances” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement allows police to conduct a warrantless search if they reasonably believe that there is a substantial risk of the loss or destruction of evidence. Police have used this exception to justify drawing blood from a DWI suspect without a warrant. In 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Missouri v. McNeely that the human body’s natural process of metabolizing alcohol is not an “exigent circumstance” justifying a warrantless blood draw. Police can still establish legitimate justifications for warrantless blood draws, but McNeely set a much higher standard than before.

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roadNew Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws allow prosecutors to prove impairment by alcohol in several ways. Evidence of blood alcohol content (BAC), determined by a breath, blood, or urine test, is a well-known method. Prosecutors may also offer witness testimony, particularly testimony by an arresting officer and others who observed the defendant at the time of the arrest. The New Jersey Supreme Court has held that no particular expertise is required to form an opinion, which would be admissible in court, that a person is intoxicated based on observation of the person. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled in State v. Colabella that a BAC below the legal limit for DWI did not supersede officer testimony regarding a defendant’s intoxication in a DWI case. Even though the person’s BAC was not high enough to create a presumption of impairment, the court accepted other evidence.

A BAC of 0.08 percent creates a presumption of intoxication under New Jersey law. This BAC amount is commonly known as the “legal limit” for DWI, and a DWI offense based on BAC evidence is often known as “per se DWI.” New Jersey law makes it a separate offense to refuse to submit to breath testing. This indicates how important the state considers BAC evidence, but it is not absolutely required for a DWI conviction. The DWI statute defines the offense as driving “while under the influence of intoxicating liquor” or other substances, or with a BAC of 0.08 or higher. Prosecutors can introduce evidence that someone was “under the influence” through officer testimony about how the defendant was driving, their demeanor and appearance, the odor of alcohol, and their performance on field sobriety tests (FSTs).

The defendant in Colabella challenged a DWI conviction when BAC test results showed a BAC below the legal limit. According to the Appellate Division’s opinion, an officer pulled the defendant over for an illegal turn and an expired inspection sticker. The officer testified at trial that he detected a “strong odor of alcohol” coming from the vehicle. He also stated that the defendant had “slow and slurred” speech and “blood shot and watery” eyes, all indicators of alcohol impairment. The defendant reportedly admitted to consuming one beer and some ibuprofen.

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judgeDefendants in New Jersey criminal cases may be eligible to participate in a Pretrial Intervention program (PTI), which allows them an opportunity to avoid prosecution by focusing on rehabilitation. New Jersey law classifies driving while intoxicated (DWI) as a motor vehicle offense, rather than a criminal offense, although driving while one’s license is suspended (DWLS) due to DWI can lead to a criminal charge in certain circumstances. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently heard an appeal filed by a prosecutor’s office in a criminal DWLS case, State v. Rizzitello. The prosecutor alleged that the trial court wrongfully admitted the defendant into PTI over the prosecutor’s objection. Citing a 2015 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, State v. Roseman, which established guidelines for reviewing a prosecutor’s rejection of a PTI application, the Appellate Division reversed the lower court.

The general standards for PTI programs are established by the New Jersey Code of Criminal Procedure and Rule 3:28 of the New Jersey Rules of Court. Rule 3:28 includes a list of guidelines setting forth the purposes of the program, the factors prosecutors should consider in deciding whether to admit an applicant, and various administrative procedures. PTI programs, according to the guidelines, should be available when rehabilitation could “reasonably be expected to deter future criminal behavior.” Guideline 3(i) provides examples of offenses that are likely to render a defendant ineligible for PTI. Defendants must apply for PTI within 28 days of their indictment, and prosecutors must make a decision within 25 days of receiving an application.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held in Roseman that a trial or appellate court may overrule a prosecutor’s rejection of a defendant’s PTI application if it finds that the rejection was “a patent and gross abuse of discretion” by the prosecutor. The court also noted, based in part on Guideline 3(i), that a presumption against PTI exists for “crimes that are, by their very nature, serious or heinous.” A defendant must show “something extraordinary or unusual” about their background in order to overcome this presumption. The Roseman court cited an earlier decision, 2008’s State v. Watkins, which gave examples of “serious or heinous” crimes, including violent crimes, breaches of the public trust, and “non-drug addicted individuals who sell Schedule I and II narcotics for profit.”

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High Beam IndicatorThe Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits police from detaining a person temporarily, or stopping a vehicle on the road, without reasonable suspicion of some sort of unlawful activity. Courts are obligated to throw out charges originating from a traffic stop, such as driving while intoxicated (DWI), if the stop violated the driver’s constitutional rights. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently considered whether this state’s high-beam statute can justify a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment. It ruled in State v. Scriven that the stop was unconstitutional because the officer did not witness an actual violation of the high-beam statute.

The “exclusionary rule” requires courts to suppress evidence obtained by police in violation of a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. An officer who initiated a traffic stop must justify the stop based on a suspected traffic offense, such as erratic driving or running a stop sign. Without reasonable suspicion, the state cannot use any evidence obtained as a result of that stop. This might include the officer’s testimony about the driver’s appearance or behavior, field sobriety tests, and Alcotest results.

Although the exclusionary rule is a powerful tool for protecting a defendant’s civil rights when police overstep their authority, courts have identified some exceptions. One of these, the “community care exception,” allows police to search private property without a warrant, as well as possibly detain a person or stop a vehicle, in the course of protecting the public from a hazardous situation. A hypothetical scenario might involve a police officer stopping a vehicle to warn about a hazardous road condition and then arresting the driver based on observations that lead the officer to suspect DWI.

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Montgomery mapNew Jersey law imposes mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses. A conviction for driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey can result in a mandatory minimum sentence if a defendant has multiple prior convictions. Mandatory minimum sentences may also apply to criminal offenses related to DWI. The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division recently ruled that a trial court violated state law by pronouncing a sentence that was less than the mandatory minimum. In addition to DWI, the defendant in State v. Locane was convicted of the criminal offenses of second-degree vehicular homicide and third-degree assault by auto. The two criminal offenses carry mandatory minimum sentences.

New Jersey’s DWI statute states that a third or subsequent DWI offense shall result in a 180-day jail sentence, but it allows a judge to lower that sentence by one day for each day a defendant spends in a drug or alcohol treatment program, up to a total of 90 days. Although judges have the discretion to reduce a defendant’s jail time by up to half, a third or subsequent DWI offense effectively has a 90-day mandatory minimum sentence.

If a person operates a vehicle recklessly and causes the death of another person, they could be found guilty of “death by auto,” also known as vehicular homicide. Evidence that a defendant was operating a vehicle while intoxicated, in violation of the state’s DWI law, “give[s] rise to an inference that the defendant was driving recklessly.” Other factors that allow a judge or jury to infer recklessness include 24 consecutive hours without sleep and the use of a cell phone while driving. Vehicular homicide combined with DWI carries a mandatory minimum prison sentence of three years, with no eligibility for parole during that time. The law allows judges some discretion but requires them to explain their reasons for deviating from the minimum.

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New Jersey’s law on driving while intoxicated (DWI) prohibits “operat[ing] a motor vehicle while under the influence” of alcohol or drugs, or with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or greater. Courts have addressed multiple challenges to the definition of “operate” under this statute. New Jersey courts have held that the key issue is a defendant’s intent to drive, and the Legislature’s objective of preventing drunk driving requires a broad definition of “operate.” The New Jersey Appellate Division reviewed these issues in a recent decision, State v. Cancelosi, in which a defendant challenged the state’s proof that he “operated” his vehicle.

snowThe Appellate Division’s ruling in Cancelosi drew heavily on the Law Division’s ruling affirming the defendant’s conviction. The Law Division judge cited multiple cases addressing the definition of “operating” a vehicle under the DWI statute. Intent to drive is at the center of the “inquiry into operation,” according to several New Jersey Supreme Court rulings. In 1973, State v. Daly held that “evidence of intent to drive or move the vehicle” can prove the “operate” element of the statute. The court held in 1987’s State v. Tischio that “a drunk driver offends the law when he evinces an intent to drive his car.” It also held in that case that “a narrow or literal interpretation would frustrate the fundamental regulatory goals underlying New Jersey’s drunk-driving laws.”

A 1963 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, State v. Sweeney, held that the state does not necessarily have to prove any movement by the vehicle. In that case, police found the defendant in a vehicle on the side of a public road with the engine running. Since then, courts have found that circumstantial evidence is admissible to prove that a defendant “operated” a vehicle. The Appellate Division’s 2005 ruling in State v. Ebert stated that circumstantial evidence may include “observation of the defendant in or out of the vehicle under circumstances indicating that the defendant had been driving while intoxicated.”

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