Articles Posted in Defending the Case

In cases involving alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey, prosecutors must prove all of the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. The New Jersey DWI statute states that a person commits an offense when they operate a vehicle “while under the influence” of drugs or alcohol. Prosecutors can prove this through testimony, such as by having the arresting officer testify about their observations of the defendant’s appearance or behavior, or through the defendant’s performance on field sobriety tests (FSTs). New Jersey evidence rules govern the ways prosecutors may introduce evidence of defendants’ performance on these tests at trial.

Accepted Field Sobriety Tests

Internuclear ophthalmoplegiaThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has created standard procedures for three FSTs. New Jersey courts accept the use of two of the three tests in DWI investigations: the “One Leg Stand” and the “Walk and Turn”. HGN has not been held relaible to measure or check for intoxication, since there are 40 or more other causes of nystagmus in addition to intoxication.

PuzzledUnder 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.

Landis RockefellerIn any prosecution for driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey, the burden of proof is on the state to establish the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. When a DWI case goes to trial, every piece of evidence introduced by both parties must be approved and admitted by the judge. The evidence must comply with the New Jersey Rules of Evidence (NJRE). Testimony is often a critical part of the state’s evidence in DWI cases, such as an arresting officer testifying about their observations of a defendant and establishing their reasons for suspecting them of DWI. Understanding which testimony is allowed under the NJRE is crucial to defending against a DWI charge.

Elements of a New Jersey DWI Case

New Jersey’s DWI statute allows prosecutors to meet their burden by proving impairment by alcohol or drugs, or by proving a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent. Proving impairment without BAC evidence requires testimony from police officers who witnessed the defendant in whichever circumstances led to the DWI charge. Even with BAC evidence, prosecutors must introduce testimony that justifies the arrest and authenticates the BAC test results.

wildflowerNew 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.

EntrapmentIf you have been charged with alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey, numerous different defenses are potentially available to you, depending on the facts of your particular case. The prosecution has the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that they must present solid evidence of every element of the offense described in the DWI statute. New Jersey treats DWI as a traffic offense, and it is important to understand how DWI cases can differ from criminal cases as a result. Some defenses that are available in criminal prosecutions are not necessarily available in a DWI case. The New Jersey Supreme Court has held, for example, that the “entrapment” defense is not available to DWI defendants.

“Entrapment” involves a claim that law enforcement encouraged or induced a defendant to commit an offense they would not otherwise have committed. The U.S. Supreme Court stated in a 1992 decision, Jacobson v. United States, that the government cannot “originate a criminal design, implant in an innocent person’s mind the disposition to commit a criminal act, and then induce commission of the crime” in order to prosecute that crime. Courts place an emphasis on the defendant’s “innocence.” In order to overcome an entrapment defense, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was already “disposed to commit the criminal act” before government agents came to them with the idea.

The New Jersey Supreme Court considered whether a defendant charged with DWI could raise a “quasi-entrapment” defense in State v. Fogarty, also in 1992. At the very beginning of its decision, the court describes the defense theory as “novel.” According to the opinion, the defendant was attending a wedding reception on the night of his arrest. Since he had been drinking, he had arranged for someone to drive him home and for someone else to drive his truck home.

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Flaming cocktailsIndividuals charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey municipal courts can raise numerous possible defenses against the state’s charges. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for example, allows defendants to challenge the basis for a traffic stop that led to a DWI charge. If a court finds that the stop violated the defendant’s rights, it must suppress any evidence obtained as a result of that stop. This usually results in the dismissal of the case. Defendants can also challenge the validity of the state’s evidence, such as Alcotest results. Some defenses that are available in criminal cases in New Jersey may also be available in DWI cases, but since New Jersey treats DWI as a motor vehicle offense, their availability is limited. A recent decision by a Texas court shows how the defense of “involuntary intoxication” could apply in a DWI case. New Jersey, however, does not currently allow this defense.

The New Jersey DWI statute defines the offense 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. Most criminal statutes require proof that a defendant had a certain mental state, such as an intent to commit that specific offense or recklessness as to the criminal nature of their actions. This is known to lawyers as mens rea. New Jersey’s DWI statute makes no mention of intent or any other mental state. While court decisions have delved further into the issue of mens rea in DWI cases, the statute only requires proof that a defendant was intoxicated or impaired.

The affirmative defense of “involuntary intoxication” allows a defendant to challenge the “intent” element of many criminal offenses by showing that the intoxication was either “not self-induced” or was “pathological.” The statute defines “pathological” as being far in excess of what would ordinarily be expected for the amount of intoxicant consumed by the defendant. Since it is an affirmative defense, the defendant has the burden of proving it by “clear and convincing evidence.” This is a lesser burden of proof than the state’s burden of proving guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

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Unbalanced scalesDriving while intoxicated (DWI) is a traffic offense, rather than a criminal offense, under New Jersey law. Most—although not all—of the protections offered in criminal prosecutions by the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions apply to DWI cases. The guarantee of due process in legal proceedings, found in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, is one of the most important protections. New Jersey’s DWI statute creates a legal presumption of intoxication for anyone whose blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.08 percent or higher. The New Jersey Appellate Division discussed whether this violates due process back in 1959, in State v. Protokowicz. Despite its age, the case still has relevance to DWI defense today.

The term “due process” generally means the right to fair legal proceedings. The U.S. Constitution states twice that no one may “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Courts have interpreted the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause to apply to the federal government, while the Fourteenth Amendment applies to the states. The New Jersey Constitution also provides for due process in Article I, section 1, stating that “[a]ll persons…have certain natural and unalienable rights,” including “those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, [and] of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property.”

The New Jersey DWI statute defines the offense in two ways. A person commits the offense if (1) they “operate[] a motor vehicle while under the influence” of alcohol or drugs, or (2) drive with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher. In the second type of DWI, BAC evidence creates a presumption that a defendant was “under the influence.” State laws requiring drivers to submit to breath testing facilitate the collection of BAC evidence. Since this presumption seems to put a DWI defendant at a disadvantage from the very beginning, does it pose due process problems?

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AppealEvery defendant charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey is entitled to a trial by a municipal court judge. If a defendant believes that the municipal court has made an error in its verdict, they can appeal to the New Jersey Superior Court, Law Division. This court has the authority to conduct a new trial. From there, a defendant can appeal to the Appellate Division, and then to the New Jersey Supreme Court. These higher courts, however, are limited in their ability to review or reverse the factual findings of the lower courts, and they are often hesitant to second-guess a trial court’s conclusions. The Appellate Division reviewed these limitations in a March 2017 decision.

Municipal courts in New Jersey have jurisdiction over motor vehicle offenses, including DWI. A DWI case is assigned to the municipal court of the city, borough, town, or other municipality where the offense allegedly occurred. At trial, the municipal judge hears the arguments from the prosecution and the defendant, reviews the evidence, and renders a verdict. This is generally the only time the parties may present live witnesses, giving the municipal judge a unique perspective on the case.

According to Rule 3:23 of the New Jersey Rules of Court, a defendant has the right to appeal a DWI conviction in municipal court to the Law Division. This court may conduct a trial de novo, meaning that it is not bound by the municipal court’s factual or legal findings, and it may consider the case completely anew. That said, the Law Division typically only has access to the record of the proceedings in the municipal court. This includes all of the evidence presented at trial, but it does not include whatever understanding of the case may come from watching the testimony of witnesses in person. For this reason, courts are often unwilling to upset a municipal judge’s factual findings without evidence of a significant error.

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Las Vegas signThe statute defining driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey establishes two ways for prosecutors to prove guilt. First, they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant “operate[d] a motor vehicle while under the influence of” alcohol or drugs. Alternatively, they can show that a defendant operated a motor vehicle while their blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.08 percent or higher. Despite the common name of the offense, however, the statute says nothing about “intoxication.” It also omits another word commonly used in discussions of DWI, “impairment.” All the way back in 1964, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in State v. Johnson that a defendant’s actual impairment is not an essential element of DWI, and the ability to drive safely anyway is not a defense.

Operating a motor vehicle with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher is sometimes known as DWI per se, since the BAC evidence effectively creates a legal presumption of guilt. A defendant can challenge BAC evidence by questioning the accuracy of the testing device. State law requires police to follow specific procedures when administering a breath test, and the device requires regular maintenance and careful calibration. A failure by police to follow proper procedures can result in the exclusion of test results at trial.

A DWI conviction is possible without BAC evidence, or even with evidence that a defendant’s BAC was less than 0.08 percent, if the state provides evidence that the defendant exhibited signs of intoxication. This usually involves eyewitness testimony from police officers and others. Challenging this sort of evidence might require impeaching a witness’ credibility or providing a counter-narrative to the prosecution’s story. A defendant can also challenge the prosecution’s entire case if they can show that the original traffic stop or arrest violated their Fourth Amendment rights.

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Police carThe Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution protects numerous rights against abuses and injustice in criminal cases. Most of these constitutional rights apply in New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases, including the Fourth Amendment’s protection of people’s right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Identifying violations of these rights is a major component of defending against DWI charges. Most DWI cases begin with a traffic stop, in which police pull a vehicle over on the road. Police must have a “reasonable suspicion” of some sort of wrongdoing for a traffic stop to be legal. Challenging the legality of a stop can lead to the exclusion of most or all of the state’s evidence and the dismissal of the case.

According to the Fourth Amendment, police must obtain a warrant before conducting a search or seizing a person or their property. That warrant must be supported by probable cause to believe that doing so will produce evidence of a crime or another offense. The U.S. Supreme Court has held, however, that police may briefly detain a person to investigate possible criminal activity when they do not have probable cause, if they have a “reasonable suspicion” of something unlawful. This type of stop is known as a “Terry stop,” after the Supreme Court’s decision in Terry v. Ohio in 1968.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that traffic stops are “seizures” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and they are therefore subject to the restrictions established by Terry. A 1984 Supreme Court decision, Berkemer v. McCarty, found that Terry applies to traffic stops for suspected traffic offenses, including DWI. It also held that people are entitled to the protections of the Fifth Amendment, including the rights described in Miranda v. Arizona, if they are taken into custody during a traffic stop.