Articles Posted in Refusal

A recent decision by the Superior Court of New Jersey, State v. O’Neill, highlights two important features of New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws. First, the court held that, under New Jersey’s implied consent law, any response other than an unambiguous “yes” to an officer’s request to submit to breath testing may be deemed a refusal. Even verbal consent by a person to breath testing, as long as her mother remained with her, could be considered “refusal” under this interpretation of the law. Second, state law requires officers to read a statement regarding implied consent and refusal, and as long as an officer reads the statement prior to taking a breath sample, the state has fulfilled its duty under the law. This applies even if the statement omits information any defendant might reasonably find useful.

The defendant was stopped by a police officer in Bernard Township, New Jersey on January 19, 2013, allegedly for speeding. The officer determined that she had consumed alcohol before driving, although the court does not say how. After placing her under arrest and transporting her to police headquarters, the officer read the New Jersey Attorney General’s Standard Statement for Motor Vehicle Operators (the “Standard Statement”) aloud to her. The defendant responded that she would agree to testing if her mother could be with her. Because this response was “conditional,” rather than “yes,” the officer read the final section of the Standard Statement, which states that she could be charged with refusal for any answer “other than ‘yes.’” The defendant replied “no.”

The officer charged the defendant with DWI, refusal to submit to breath testing, speeding, and failing to produce documentation. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the refusal charge in the municipal court, arguing that the state did not fulfill its statutory duties because it failed to advise her of the minimum penalties if she were to be convicted of refusal. The municipal court denied her motion. The defendant pleaded guilty to DWI, and entered a conditional plea of guilty to refusal, reserving her right to appeal the dismissal motion. The Law Division denied her appeal, and the case went before the Superior Court. Continue reading

A decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court last year limits the ability of police to take a blood sample from a DWI suspect without consent or a warrant. Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S.Ct. 1552 (2013). The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures, and generally requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant before searching private property. Police can claim “exigent circumstances” to justify a warrantless search, meaning that in a specific emergency situation, they cannot take the time to obtain a warrant. The McNeely case addressed claims by police that the human body’s process of metabolizing alcohol was an exigent circumstance that justified taking a blood sample without a warrant. In response to the decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court has modified its procedures for search warrant requests to ensure that judges are available to issue warrants.

The defendant in McNeely was stopped by a highway patrolman for speeding. The officer claims that defendant did not perform well in a field sobriety test, and he refused a breath test. En route to the police station, the defendant refused a breath test again, so the officer diverted to a hospital and directed a hospital technician to take a blood sample. The defendant did not consent to having blood drawn, and the officer did not obtain a warrant. Lab testing showed blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.154 percent, almost twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

The state charged the defendant with driving while intoxicated, but the court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress. It held that the warrantless blood test violated his Fourth Amendment rights. When the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the decision, the U.S. Supreme Court took the case in order to resolve a conflict with its own prior decision in Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966). That case held that an officer might reasonably conclude that the breakdown of alcohol in the bloodstream constituted “exigent circumstances,” id. at 770-71, but limited its holding to the specific circumstances of the case. In McNeely, the court rejected establishing a “per se rule” that alcohol metabolism justifies a warrantless blood test. 133 S.Ct. at 1561. Continue reading

A series of errors by a private laboratory testing company has called hundreds of pending DWI cases into question. Blood samples sent to the lab were reportedly mislabeled, or were subject to other paperwork errors, resulting in uncertain test results. Prosecutors are trying to determine whether retesting is possible, while DWI defendants and their advocates remain skeptical that the state has revealed all of the damage done by the lab’s errors. Laws defining the offense of DWI generally do not require evidence of blood alcohol content (BAC) obtained through blood or breath testing, but chemical evidence is generally considered the simplest way for prosecutors to prove intoxication.

The district attorney’s office in San Antonio, Texas contracted with the laboratory, which is located in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, to test samples taken by police in DWI cases. The lab reportedly sent a letter to the DA’s office in May 2014 informing it that an analyst had made multiple errors in paperwork affecting hundreds of samples. The DA’s office has reportedly not made the full extent of the errors public, but one error by the analyst, who has been terminated by the lab, involved incorrect labeling of 350 samples.

The lab has reportedly sent test results to the DA’s office with notices that they cannot definitively link the results to a specific sample, although the DA’s office has denied that results have actually been mixed up between cases. The office has also denied that any samples were contaminated by the lab, although news media have reported that some documents make reference to contaminated equipment. The situation has left both prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys uncertain how to proceed with pending DWI cases. Continue reading

There are still significant opportunities to defend New Jersey DWI Refusal charges after the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Schmidt on May 26, 2011. The most important thing to remember when addressing the defense of a refusal charge is, never assume that simply being charged with a refusal means that a conviction will automatically follow.

Understanding of the law and the individuals involved is key to attempting success in what appears to be a very difficult charge to defend.

Schmidt now states the general proposition that if you blew into the machine but didn’t give a complete sample that the machine “accepted”, you cannot claim that the officer should have then read you the second part of the implied consent warning as a defense to the charge. This doesn’t mean, however, that you will automatically lose your case and suffer the consequences of a refusal charge.

Until May 26, 2011, there was a defense to a refusal charge that you had attempted to blow into the machine, but the machine did not register or accept the breath sample. However, this is no longer a defense.

This is how the defense worked: Implied consent warnings are eleven paragraphs of written warnings read to you by the police officer in the police station prior to the breath testing. The warning states that if you do not submit to the breath testing you will be given a separate ticket for refusal with separate penalties from a DWI conviction. If you started to give a breath sample, but for any reason were unable to give a complete sample that the machine accepted, the officer would likely have charged you with refusing to submit to the testing. However, if the officer did not read the “Additional Statement” that is printed after the eleven paragraphs, then you would claim that you were not adequately warned at that point that failure to complete the testing would result in a refusal charge.

This defense was intuitively sound, since you had not actually refused to give a breath sample, and had in fact provided a sample. The officer should have separately advised you that you would be subject to a refusal charge where you had already blown. Then, you would have been on notice to continue to attempt to blow into the machine, rather than stop, subjecting yourself to a separate suspension for refusal.

If you are charged with refusal to submit to breath testing in a New Jersey DWI / Refusal case, but you don’t speak English well enough to understand the implied consent warning, you may have a defense to the refusal charge. Refusal convictions require proof that the officer requested that you submit to a chemical breath test and informed you of the consequences of refusing to do so. Even though motorists are deemed to have given their consent to submit to breath testing, the officer must still inform the driver of the consequences of refusal.

In a case decided by the New Jersey Supreme Court called State v. Marquez, the Court stated that the obligation to “inform” requires more than a recitation of English words to a non-English speaker. “Knowledge cannot be imparted in that way.” The officer must convey the implied consent warning in a language the person speaks or understands.

The point of the officer advising a driver of the penalties for refusal “is to impel the driver to take the test so that the State will have the evidence necessary to prosecute a DWI charge.” That aim cannot be accomplished, according to the court, by reading words in a language the motorist does not understand.

New Jersey Refusal / DWI law is complex, but it has just been clarified by the New Jersey Supreme Court in a case called State v. Ciancaglini, decided January 19, 2011, favoring individuals who have prior Refusal convictions who then get a subsequent DWI conviction.

The case also illustrates that lower courts can be wrong in their assessment of an issue, and appeals must be taken in order to correct the errors made and reverse the conviction or legal issue.

Ciancaglini had a prior DWI in 1979 and then a conviction for Refusal in 2006. In 2008, she was convicted of DWI, and the Municipal Court sentenced her as a third offender, based on changes in the case law from a few years earlier. She then appealed to the Law Division, which agreed with her that the law precluded the Refusal conviction to be counted against her DWI sentencing, and sentenced her as a first offender, giving her the benefit of the 10 year step down rule between her 1979 conviction and the current 2008 conviction. The State then appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed the Law Division, and held that she should be considered a third offender based on the change of law in a case called State v. Cummings.

When I speak with prospective clients who have been charged with Refusal to Submit to Breath Testing in a New Jersey DWI/DUI, I often hear, “How can I be charged with Refusal? I blew into the machine several times!”

If you have been charged with Refusal, and if you attempted to blow into the Alcotest®, the new breath testing machine in New Jersey DWI matters, you probably have a good defense to that charge. That’s important, because, on a first alleged offense, the suspension for Refusal is much greater than the DWI charge. On a first Refusal, the license suspension is 7 – 12 months, and the suspension on the DWI is 3 months.

Getting rid of the Refusal charge makes the DWI/DUI more defensible. Not only is there one less serious charge to defend, there is no longer an inference that you refused because you were drunk. There is actually a case that says that if you are convicted of Refusal, the judge can infer that you refused because you were, in fact, intoxicated. See State v. Tabisz.

In all states, including New Jersey, after a DWI arrest, a police officer must read a “standard statement” that contains a warning that the motorist must submit to breath testing when probable cause exists to believe the person is under the influence of alcohol.

The implied consent form includes some pretty alarming language that should make anyone hearing it sit up and take notice, even if the person is in a bit of an altered state. So, when I speak to clients who say that they don’t recall being read anything prior to being asked to submit to breath testing, I think that is a significant issue to explore.

For example, the most significant part of the statement sets forth the potential penalties for failure to submit to the testing:

As a New Jersey DWI Attorney, I acknowledge that “refusal” cases, where a client says he/she will not submit to a breath test, is one of the harder types of cases to deal with in my DWI-only practice.

However, it is not a foregone conclusion that the person who says no will be convicted of refusing to take the test. There are many defenses to refusal charges.

There are very few instances where, in hindsight, refusing to blow would have been a good decision. Refusal is a second charge — in addition to the DWI charge — so, now, you have to worry about defending both charges. Even where the person is sure that he/she is over the limit prior to blowing into the breath testing machine, it is almost always better to blow than not, because there are many more defenses to breath testing issues than refusal cases.