Articles Posted in DWI Information

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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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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According to recent media reports, the number of convictions for driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey is decreasing, at least with regard to cases involving alcohol. The decline reportedly might be due to an increase in DWI cases involving marijuana and other controlled substances. New Jersey law provides no per se standard for impairment by marijuana or other drugs that is comparable to the standard for alcohol. A bill currently pending in the New Jersey Assembly, A2776, would establish a per se standard for marijuana in DWI cases. This bill, if enacted, would probably present both benefits and drawbacks for New Jersey DWI defendants.

New Jersey law creates a presumption of impairment if a defendant’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is at least 0.08 percent. This is often known as DWI per se. Since no similar standard exists for marijuana and other drugs, prosecutors must rely on testimony from police officers who have received training as “drug recognition experts” (DREs). Typically, a DRE-certified officer observes a defendant during or shortly after their arrest, and then forms an opinion of which substance(s) they took. The use of DRE testimony in court presents problems for defendants, given the wide gulf that often exists between the questionable scientific basis of their training and the weight that courts often give to police officers’ testimony.

Tests for marijuana look for specific compounds in the blood. Delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the active component of marijuana, but it can dissipate in the bloodstream within a few hours. As the body metabolizes THC, it produces a form of carboxylic acid known as delta 9-carboxy-THC (THC-COOH) as a metabolite. The presence of THC-COOH can determine if someone has recently used marijuana, but it is a less accurate method of establishing actual impairment.

New Jersey law imposes a range of penalties for driving while intoxicated (DWI) and related offenses, including license suspensions, fines, and the possibility of jail time. On top of that, the state Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) assesses surcharges in New Jersey DWI cases. These are monetary penalties that must be paid separately from any fines imposed by a municipal court. The amount of the surcharge can be substantial, particularly for someone with multiple convictions, so understanding and preparing for a surcharge obligation is an essential part of defending against DWI charges. New Jersey considers DWI to be a “petty” offense, contained in the state’s motor vehicle laws rather than its criminal statutes. Courts have held that surcharges do not enhance the penalties for DWI to the point that it should be considered a criminal offense.

The New Jersey DWI statute identifies an increasing range of penalties. A first offense involving a blood alcohol content (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent, but less than 0.10 percent, carries the lowest maximum penalty. A third or subsequent offense carries the greatest potential penalty, including up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, and a license suspension of 10 years. The possible penalties for refusal to submit to breath testing also increase based on prior convictions, and they include both fines and a license suspension. A conviction for either offense includes a $100 surcharge payable to a Drunk Driving Enforcement Fund managed by the state, but this is not the only surcharge payable in DWI and refusal cases.

The New Jersey Automobile Insurance Reform Act of 1982 created a surcharge system under the MVC. It applies to DWI and refusal offenses occurring in New Jersey on or after February 10, 1983, and to comparable out-of-state offenses occurring on or after January 26, 1984. The amount of the surcharge has not changed since that time. The surcharge for a first or second DWI or refusal conviction is $3,000, payable in three annual installments of $1,000. For a third or subsequent conviction, the surcharge is $4,500, payable in three annual $1,500 payments. If a driver is convicted of both DWI and refusal based on a single arrest, they must only pay one surcharge. Private insurance companies may also assess their own surcharges after DWI or refusal convictions.

New Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) statute is not limited to impairment due to alcohol. The text of the statute also includes “narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug[s]” as substances that could cause impairment. The statute specifies a measurable amount of alcohol in one’s system that creates a presumption of impairment, but it does not do the same for any other drugs. This requires prosecutors to rely largely on eyewitness evidence from arresting officers, who may or may not have training in recognizing the signs of impairment by specific substances. If the alleged substance is illegal under state or federal drug laws, this might assist prosecutors. As more and more states pass laws allowing the use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, though, the issue is becoming more complicated. New Jersey may consider legislation to allow recreational marijuana use later in 2018, so law enforcement will have to address this issue soon.The New Jersey DWI statute establishes two methods of proving impairment. One method, sometimes known as “per se DWI,” presumes impairment if a defendant’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was at least 0.08 percent soon after they were allegedly operating a motor vehicle. The “implied consent” statute authorizes police to collect breath samples from anyone driving on New Jersey roads upon suspicion of DWI, and it makes refusal a separate traffic offense. Blood and urine samples may also indicate BAC, but these usually require a warrant or consent. The lack of any statutory guidelines for any drug other than alcohol means that prosecutors must pursue the other form of DWI, which requires proof of driving “while under the influence” of any of the list of substances mentioned earlier. Unlike BAC levels, this is a much more subjective question.

Some states have laws or regulations that specify an amount of marijuana, or other drugs, in one’s system that creates a presumption of impairment. For marijuana, the measurement is in nanograms of THC, the active component of marijuana, per milliliter of blood. Colorado, which was the first state to allow recreational use of marijuana, has set a limit of five nanograms per milliliter. In Pennsylvania, the “legal limit” for marijuana is one nanogram per milliliter. A debate is ongoing among scientists as to whether these numbers have any useful meaning with regard to impairment.

Other states, including New Jersey, rely on testimonial evidence to determine whether a drug impaired a defendant’s ability to drive. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed a conviction for DWI based on impairment by marijuana in State v. Bealor in 2006. The court held that, while lay opinions as to intoxication by alcohol may be admissible, they are not necessarily admissible for other drugs because the signs of impairment by drugs are not as well-known to the public as the signs of drunkenness. In this case, the arresting officers testified that the defendant’s “eyes were bloodshot and glassy,” that he moved slowly and had slurred speech, and that the smell of “burnt marijuana” emanated from the car. Tests of the defendant’s urine showed the presence of marijuana. These two pieces of evidence, the court held, were enough to support the conviction, even without expert witness testimony.

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.