In order to prove that a defendant is guilty of driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey, prosecutors must establish multiple elements beyond a reasonable doubt. This includes proving that the defendant was operating a motor vehicle while impaired by drugs or alcohol. New Jersey courts have given prosecutors leeway regarding this element, ruling that police do not have to witness a DWI suspect actually driving. Instead, prosecutors may use circumstantial evidence. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently reviewed this standard of proof in an appeal brought by a defendant found sleeping in his vehicle. The court’s decision in State v. Capers offers a brief but useful overview of this element of the DWI offense.
The New Jersey DWI statute states that a person commits an offense when they “operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of” alcohol or drugs. The bulk of the text of this section is devoted to blood alcohol content (BAC) and the various penalties for convictions. The Legislature devoted very little space to the actual operation of a motor vehicle. One might think, given that the state must prove every element of an offense beyond a reasonable doubt, that courts would require actual eyewitness testimony about the defendant’s operation of a vehicle, or a defendant’s admission to driving. The courts, however, have taken a very expansive view of how prosecutors can prove that a defendant operated a vehicle.
A 2005 decision by the Appellate Division, State v. Ebert, specifically holds that “[a]ctual operation is not required to satisfy the element” of the DWI statute. The court identified three methods of proving operation of a vehicle:
1. Testimony about “actual observation of the defendant driving while intoxicated”;
2. Testimony regarding “observation of the defendant in or out of the vehicle under circumstances indicating that the defendant had been driving while intoxicated”; or
3. A “defendant’s admission” to operating a vehicle under the influence.