Under the laws of the state of New Jersey, driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a motor vehicle offense rather than a criminal offense. While a DWI conviction can result in serious penalties, including the possibility of jail time, the New Jersey court system does not deal with DWI cases in the same way it handles most criminal cases. A defendant in a New Jersey DWI case, for example, does not have the right to a trial by jury as described in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. DWI is considered a “petty” offense, and therefore it is not covered by all of the provisions of the Bill of Rights that apply in criminal cases. Most other rights, like the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and the Sixth Amendment’s right to confront one’s accuser, still apply in DWI cases. Understanding which courts may consider DWI prosecutions and appeals, and how they are allowed to consider them, is important when planning a defense against DWI charges.
Municipal courts have original jurisdiction over DWI cases under Rule 7:1 of the New Jersey Rules of Court (NJROC). The municipal court judge handles all pretrial motions and other matters, and presides over the trial if one occurs. The judge will render a verdict and decide on a sentence. Several levels of appeal are available after a conviction in municipal court. If a person seeks post-conviction relief, however, NJROC 7:10-2 requires them to file a petition in the municipal court where the conviction took place.
Appeals from a municipal court conviction go to the Superior Court, Law Division. NJROC 3:23 requires a defendant to file a notice of appeal within 20 days of their conviction. The Law Division, upon receiving a transcript from the municipal court, may reverse the conviction and remand the case to the lower court, or it may conduct a trial de novo. While the Law Division is not bound by the municipal court’s findings of law or fact, it must “give due…regard to the opportunity of the [municipal court] to judge the credibility of the witnesses,” according to the New Jersey Supreme Court 1964 ruling in State v. Johnson.