Articles Posted in Defending the Case

The legal status of cannabis, including marijuana and related products, is undergoing major changes throughout the country. More than half of all U.S. states, including New Jersey, allow the possession and use of marijuana to some extent for medical purposes under a doctor’s supervision. A handful of states have enacted laws decriminalizing the possession of small amounts for recreational use. This may involve the substitution of civil penalties for criminal ones, or the removal of all legal penalties. A bill pending in the New Jersey Legislature, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act (NJCREAMA) would remove all criminal penalties for the purchase and possession of up to one ounce of cannabis. Several provisions of the bill directly address investigations and prosecutions under New Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) law.

The New Jersey DWI statute defines the offense, in part, as driving “while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, narcotic,…or habit-producing drug.” For alcohol, the statute establishes a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent as the per se standard of impairment. State law also requires DWI suspects to submit a breath sample for BAC testing. New Jersey has no per se standard for marijuana impairment in DWI cases. Prosecutors must instead rely on circumstantial evidence and testimony from police officers trained as “drug recognition experts.” A bill introduced in February 2018, A2776, would establish a per se standard of two nanograms per milliliter, based on blood tests, but it is still awaiting a committee assignment.

Legislators first introduced NJCREAMA in the Senate in June 2018 as S2703. The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee reported favorably on an amended version of the bill on November 26, 2018. A companion bill, A4497, was introduced in the Assembly and received a favorable report from the Assembly Appropriations Committee on the same day. This means that both committees recommend passage of the bill. In addition to legalizing small amounts of marijuana for medical use, the bill would create a new Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) “to regulate personal use and medical cannabis.” It also provides for the expungement of records in certain prior marijuana cases.
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The holiday season means many great things for people in New Jersey, such as family, friends, and celebration. Since the “celebration” part of the holidays can sometimes lead to excess, police tend to step up efforts to enforce New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws on roads during the holidays. This may include the use of roadside sobriety checkpoints. New Jersey police are allowed to stop drivers at temporary checkpoint locations to inquire about alcohol consumption and look for signs of intoxication. The ability of police to do this is strictly limited, however, by the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. New Jersey drivers should know their rights during sobriety checkpoint stops.

The New Jersey DWI statute defines the offense primarily as operating a motor vehicle “while under the influence” of alcohol or drugs, or with blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or more. The state may prove this by offering evidence of a defendant’s BAC obtained from a breath sample, which all drivers in New Jersey are required to provide under law, or through other evidence indicating that a defendant was impaired at the time they were operating a vehicle. Many DWI cases begin with a traffic stop based on a police officer’s suspicion that the driver is intoxicated. The Fourth Amendment requires that this be a “reasonable suspicion,” meaning that police officers cannot pull a driver over without some clear basis for suspecting DWI. To make an arrest, police must have “probable cause” to believe an offense has occurred.

Sobriety checkpoints, which allow police to stop some or all vehicles on a particular stretch of road, clearly do not involve “reasonable suspicion,” but the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed their constitutionality. In 1990, the court held in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz that preventing DWI was a “substantial government interest,” that sobriety checkpoints “reasonably…advance that interest,” and that “the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists” is minimal. The New Jersey Appellate Division held that a sobriety checkpoint was constitutional in 1985 in State v. Kirk, and in 1989 in State v. Mazurek. The New Jersey Supreme Court reached a similar ruling in 2002’s State v. Carty.
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Prosecutors in New Jersey DWI cases have the burden of proving every element of driving while intoxicated (DWI) beyond a reasonable doubt. They must also ensure that the proceedings accord with a defendant’s due process rights. This includes a defendant’s right to understand the charges brought against them and the likely penalties that could result from a guilty verdict. New Jersey, along with many other states, has an implied consent statute that effectively requires drivers to submit to breath testing when ordered to do so by a police officer. A separate code section makes it a motor vehicle offense, punishable by a fine and driver’s license suspension, to refuse to submit to breath testing. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled in two cases that alleged due process violations because of summonses that cited the wrong code section. In both cases, State v. Dito and State v. Horton, the summonses cited the implied consent statute, rather than the section making refusal an offense.The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from depriving persons of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” One aspect of this requirement involves “fair notice” of potential criminal penalties for specific conduct. The U.S. Supreme Court has found statutes to be unconstitutional for failing to provide fair notice. In a 1964 decision, Bouie v. City of Columbia, the court held that a trespass statute did not clearly define the offense, such that the defendants knew that their conduct was illegal.

The defendants in Dito and Horton argued that New Jersey’s implied consent and refusal statutes present a similar question. The implied consent law, found in § 39:4-50.2 of the New Jersey Revised Statutes, states that anyone operating a vehicle on a public roadway in New Jersey “shall be deemed to have given his consent to the taking of samples of his breath” in DWI investigations. It does not, however, prescribe any penalty for refusing to provide a breath sample. The provisions for penalties are found in § 39:4-50.4a, which mandates driver’s license revocation and a fine.

The question presented in Dito and Horton was whether a summons for refusal that cites § 39:4-50.2 instead of § 39:4-50.4a constitutes “fair notice.” The defendant in Dito moved to dismiss the refusal charge in municipal court on this ground. The Law Division granted the motion, holding that “that the error was fatal because it failed to inform defendant of the nature of the charge against him.”

Prosecutions for driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey often begin with a traffic stop. A police officer might pull a driver over based on a specific suspicion of DWI, or they might pull them over for another reason and then notice signs of possible impairment by drugs or alcohol. In either case, police must have “reasonable suspicion” of unlawful activity before initiating a traffic stop. The “reasonable suspicion” requirement is an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. New Jersey prosecutors recently tried to justify a traffic stop that led to a DWI case under the “community caretaker” doctrine, another exception to the warrant requirement, in State v. Sutherland. The New Jersey Supreme Court had previously rejected prosecutors’ reasonable suspicion argument. On remand, the Appellate Division rejected the community caretaker argument as well. This can be a complex area of law, so it may be worthwhile to reach out to a New Jersey DWI lawyer if you have questions.

Under New Jersey law, it is a traffic offense to drive “while under the influence” of drugs or alcohol. The state can prove that a defendant was legally impaired through various means, including eyewitness testimony by the arresting officers, other officers, and “drug recognition experts.” Prosecutors can also introduce evidence of blood alcohol content (BAC) at or above the “legal limit” of 0.08 percent. Defending against a DWI charge often involves challenging the state’s evidence of impairment, but it may also be possible to challenge the justification for the traffic stop itself.

Brief detentions of individuals by police, based on reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity, are often known as “Terry stops,” after the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision Terry v. Ohio. Five years later, the court decided Cady v. Dombrowski, which held that police do not violate the Fourth Amendment when they find evidence of criminal activity while engaging in certain “community caretaking functions.” This refers to police activities that have no relation to “the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.”
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Defending against a charge of alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey requires careful evaluation of every part of the state’s case, which is why it is often wise to retain a dedicated New Jersey DWI lawyer if you are in such a situation. The state has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on every element of the offense of DWI. The job of a defendant and their counsel is to challenge the state’s evidence and legal arguments. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits police from conducting searches and seizures without a warrant, but the courts have identified numerous exceptions. A police officer may be able to justify a traffic stop if they can demonstrate “reasonable suspicion” of unlawful activity by the driver. In early 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the state’s reasonable suspicion argument in State v. Sutherland. The court held that the officer’s suspicion was not “objectively reasonable.” It remanded the case to the Appellate Division to resolve the state’s alternative argument that the stop was justified by the “community caretaking” doctrine.

New Jersey’s DWI statute broadly prohibits the operation of a motor vehicle “while under the influence” of alcohol or drugs. It allows the state to prove impairment by alcohol in two ways: with evidence that a defendant’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was 0.08 percent or higher, or with other evidence indicating impairment. The statute identifies various penalties based on factors like a defendant’s BAC and their number of prior convictions. It does not make any mention of the manner in which police come to suspect that a driver is impaired.

A police officer may briefly detain a person, such as in a traffic stop, without a warrant if they have reasonable suspicion of criminal or other unlawful activity. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this in Terry v. Ohio in 1968. The court held that an officer’s suspicion must be based on “specific reasonable inferences…in light of his experience,” and not on an “inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or ‘hunch.’” In the context of a DWI case, an officer might testify that they witnessed a defendant driving erratically. A traffic stop that leads to a DWI charge does not have to begin with an officer’s suspicion of DWI. A police officer could stop a driver for another suspected traffic violation, such as running a red light, and then discover evidence of DWI. This becomes complicated when an officer is mistaken about traffic law.
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New Jersey DWI (driving while intoxicated) and related offenses are not considered criminal offenses. Instead, they are classified as traffic offenses, meaning that the maximum penalties, while still potentially quite onerous, are generally not as severe as in many criminal cases. A case involving alleged DWI can include criminal charges when injury or death occurs, but a defendant may also be subject to criminal prosecution merely for driving while their license is suspended (DWLS) when they have prior DWI-related convictions. The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division recently considered what prior convictions are necessary for the criminal DWLS statute to apply in State v. Dougherty.

New Jersey’s criminal DWLS statute imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of 180 days in jail. The statute identifies two scenarios based on the reason for the license suspension and the defendant’s prior record.
1. An ordinary DWLS charge can become a criminal charge if the license suspension is because of a conviction for first-time DWI or refusal to submit to breath testing, and the defendant has a prior conviction for DWLS during the same period of license suspension. This provision appears to require two prior convictions: one for DWI or refusal, and one for DWLS.
2. The criminal statute may also be invoked if the reason for the license suspension is a second or subsequent DWI or refusal conviction. This provision does not require a prior conviction for DWLS, but does require multiple prior DWI or refusal convictions.

The defendant in Dougherty was charged with criminal DWLS under the second scenario identified by the statute. He was convicted of DWI in August 2015, resulting in a three-month license suspension. In November 2015, he was convicted of refusal and sentenced to a seven-month license suspension. A police officer pulled him over while driving in December 2015, during the suspension period resulting from the refusal conviction. A grand jury indicted him for criminal DWLS.
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In New Jersey, driving while intoxicated (DWI) and most related offenses are not considered criminal in nature. They are instead classified as traffic or motor vehicle offenses. Driving while license suspended (DWLS) is usually a motor vehicle offense, punishable by a fine, driver’s license suspension, and potential revocation of vehicle registration. In certain circumstances, however, DWLS is a criminal offense. Prosecutors may charge a defendant with both forms of DWLS for a single alleged incident. A defendant convicted of both offenses recently argued on appeal that the trial court should have merged the penalties. The New Jersey Appellate Division agreed earlier this year in State v. Koerner. While it affirmed the conviction, it remanded the case to the lower court for resentencing.

Under New Jersey’s motor vehicle laws, a first DWLS offense carries a fine of $500. If the offense occurs during a period of license suspension for a DWI or refusal conviction, the penalty also includes vehicle registration revocation. For a second offense, the penalty includes a $750 fine and up to five days in jail. The penalty for a third or subsequent offense is a $1,000 fine and up to ten days in jail. If a second, third, or subsequent offense occurs within five years of a prior DWLS conviction, the defendant is also subject to registration revocation. Municipal courts typically hear motor vehicle cases.

The state can charge a person with criminal DWLS in two situations: (1) when the individual has a prior traffic conviction for DWLS during a period of license suspension resulting from a DWI or refusal conviction; or (2) when the alleged offense occurs while the individual’s license is under suspension for a second of subsequent DWI or refusal conviction. In both cases, it is a crime of the fourth degree, with a mandatory minimum sentence of 180 days in county jail. New Jersey’s sentencing statute allows sentences of up to eighteen months for crimes in the fourth degree. The New Jersey Superior Court, Law Division is the venue for most criminal cases.
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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.
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New Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) statute does not limit the offense to alcohol. It also includes any “narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug” that might impair one’s ability to drive. The statute makes proving impairment by alcohol rather easier for the state by identifying a specific level of blood alcohol content (BAC)—0.08 percent or above—that creates a legal presumption of intoxication. In cases in which police suspect impairment by something other than alcohol, or in which the BAC is below the legal limit, but they still suspect intoxication of some sort, they may bring in a “drug recognition expert” (DRE) to evaluate the suspect. DREs receive training in identifying signs of impairment by various drugs, but both their methodology and the scientific validity of their evaluations remain questionable. In fact, it is junk science that is less than 50% reliable — less reliable than a flip of a coin.

Prosecutors must prove that a defendant in a DWI case was legally impaired. Proving that the defendant’s BAC was at least 0.08 percent, based on a breath, blood, or urine test, typically satisfies this requirement. This evidence is not always available, or prosecutors may allege that a defendant with BAC of less than 0.08 percent was nevertheless legally impaired. The testimony of the arresting officer might support this claim, such as if the officer witnessed slurred speech or other signs indicating intoxication. The mere fact that a driver was not operating their vehicle safely, however, is not enough for a DWI charge, since reckless driving is a distinct offense. DREs serve to provide additional support for the allegation that a driver was impaired. It is critical that the opinion of the DRE be challenged, as any opinion based on the DRE protocol is not based on scientifically validated testing.

The Los Angeles Police Department established the first DRE program in the 1970s, after numerous DWI suspects had a low BAC but still seemed impaired to police. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) later expanded the program to other states. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has operated a nationwide program since 1989. Police officers receive training and certification through the IACP in the recognition of seven categories of drugs. New Jersey has over 400 certified DREs.

The Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures applies in all New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) investigations and prosecutions. Defendants can raise Fourth Amendment challenges to numerous aspects of a DWI prosecution, such as a lack of reasonable suspicion before stopping their vehicle, or a lack of probable cause to initiate a DWI investigation. In cases in which police suspect an intoxicating substance other than alcohol, they may make use of a Drug Recognition Evaluator (DRE), who has received training in identifying signs of impairment by various drugs. A lawsuit filed last year challenges the use of DREs on Fourth Amendment grounds. While the case is pending in another state, it could affect future New Jersey DWI cases.

A private organization, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), operates the system for training and certifying DREs in cooperation with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). New Jersey has more than 400 police officers participating in the program. DREs use a 12-step process to assess whether a DWI suspect is under the influence of drugs. The IACP claims that this process is supported by scientific research, although this is subject to dispute. Part of the process, for example, involves field sobriety tests that are not part of the standard battery of tests approved by the NHTSA. A variety of medical conditions, physical impairments, and other factors could influence an individual’s performance on the various tests administered by a DRE as part of the 12-step process. A DRE’s expertise, for evidentiary purposes in court, usually does not extend beyond their specific training as a DRE.

The lawsuit mentioned above, Ebner v. Cobb County, involves three plaintiffs who, according to their complaint, were arrested, subjected to forced blood draws, and held for several hours “simply because a police officer had a hunch, based on deeply flawed drug-recognition training, that they might have been smoking marijuana.” None of them were under the influence of marijuana at the time of their arrests, they claim, and toxicology tests reportedly showed no traces of marijuana or its metabolites. They were all charged with DWI, but all charges were eventually dropped.