A person charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey might decide to plead guilty, instead of going to trial. Regardless of why they make that decision, the court must follow procedures set by state law that ensure protection of the defendant’s rights. This includes a conversation between the defendant and the judge, known as the “plea colloquy,” in which the judge determines the legal validity of the guilty plea by asking the defendant questions and advising them of their rights under state law, the New Jersey Constitution, and the U.S. Constitution. If the information obtained during the plea colloquy does not meet the standard set by the New Jersey Rules of Court, the plea could be ruled invalid. The Appellate Division reached this conclusion in a decision issued in late 2020, finding that the judge never asked the defendant to acknowledge certain key facts of the prosecution’s case.
State law defines DWI in two ways. Both definitions involve operation of a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs. If the state can prove that a defendant had blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent while they were driving, or soon afterwards, this is considered evidence of legal impairment. Without BAC evidence, prosecutors must prove impairment through other evidence, such as testimony from an arresting officer about the defendant’s driving, behavior, or appearance.
Rule 7:6-2(a)(1) governs guilty pleas in municipal court cases, including New Jersey DWI cases. A municipal court judge cannot accept a guilty plea without conducting a plea colloquy to determine that the defendant is making the plea voluntarily, that they have an “understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea,” and that they acknowledge the “factual basis for the plea.” The judge can establish each of these by asking the defendant questions. If the judge is not satisfied that the defendant meets these criteria, they should not accept the defendant’s guilty plea.