Court Reviews Standard of Proof for “Operation” of a Vehicle in New Jersey DWI Cases

In order to prove that a defendant is guilty of driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey, prosecutors must establish multiple elements beyond a reasonable doubt. This includes proving that the defendant was operating a motor vehicle while impaired by drugs or alcohol. New Jersey courts have given prosecutors leeway regarding this element, ruling that police do not have to witness a DWI suspect actually driving. Instead, prosecutors may use circumstantial evidence. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently reviewed this standard of proof in an appeal brought by a defendant found sleeping in his vehicle. The court’s decision in State v. Capers offers a brief but useful overview of this element of the DWI offense.

The New Jersey DWI statute states that a person commits an offense when they “operate[] a motor vehicle while under the influence of” alcohol or drugs. The bulk of the text of this section is devoted to blood alcohol content (BAC) and the various penalties for convictions. The Legislature devoted very little space to the actual operation of a motor vehicle. One might think, given that the state must prove every element of an offense beyond a reasonable doubt, that courts would require actual eyewitness testimony about the defendant’s operation of a vehicle, or a defendant’s admission to driving. The courts, however, have taken a very expansive view of how prosecutors can prove that a defendant operated a vehicle.

A 2005 decision by the Appellate Division, State v. Ebert, specifically holds that “[a]ctual operation is not required to satisfy the element” of the DWI statute. The court identified three methods of proving operation of a vehicle:
1. Testimony about “actual observation of the defendant driving while intoxicated”;
2. Testimony regarding “observation of the defendant in or out of the vehicle under circumstances indicating that the defendant had been driving while intoxicated”; or
3. A “defendant’s admission” to operating a vehicle under the influence.

The second method can involve a wide range of circumstantial evidence. Some situations may seem obvious, such as a single-car accident in which an intoxicated individual is the only person present. Others are not so clear-cut. The Ebert case, for example, involved a defendant who reported her vehicle stolen. The responding officer discovered that the car was simply in a different part of the parking lot. Based on observations of the defendant’s condition, the officer concluded that she had driven her vehicle to that location while under the influence. The courts upheld her conviction for DWI.

In the Capers case, the arresting officers found the defendant’s car stopped on the side of a road at about 3:26 a.m., with the headlights on and the engine running. The defendant was reportedly asleep in the driver’s seat, with his head and left arm “hanging out of the driver’s side window.” They testified that they had to make several attempts to wake him, after which he performed poorly on field sobriety tests. After his arrest, the Alcotest showed BAC of 0.16 percent. Even though no officer witnessed the defendant actually driving, the courts held that this was sufficient evidence to establish that element of the DWI statute.

DWI lawyer Evan Levow advocates for people who are facing alleged DWI charges in New Jersey courts. He can guide you through the court process, help you understand your rights, and prepare the best possible defense for your case. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our knowledgeable and skilled team, please contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717.

More Blog Posts:

DWI Case Alleges Impairment by Caffeine, Rather than Alcohol, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, January 24, 2017

Recent Decisions in Several New Jersey DWI Appeals Demonstrate that Actual Driving Is Not Always Required to Sustain a DWI Conviction, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 19, 2015

Holiday DWI Stories Illustrate Important Principles of New Jersey DWI Law, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, January 13, 2015


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