How Do New Jersey Courts Evaluate New Scientific Evidence in DWI Cases?

In any New Jersey courtroom proceeding, neither side can present any evidence unless the court has found that it is admissible. Municipal court judges hearing driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases often have to rule on defendants’ motions to suppress evidence that police allegedly obtained unlawfully. They must rule on objections to testimony based on rules about relevance and hearsay. Scientific evidence presents additional challenges, especially when it involves new or unfamiliar techniques or technology. With police around the state preparing to roll out a new Alcotest device in DWI cases, it is worth considering how courts decide whether to admit new scientific evidence.

Why is there a need for a separate standard for scientific evidence?

Trials and hearings may have two types of witness testimony. Fact witnesses can testify about what they saw and heard. They are not supposed to insert their own opinions. A person who witnessed a car accident, for example, can testify about what they saw, but not about why they think the accident happened.

An expert witness can testify about their opinions on certain matters. In order for the court to accept them as an expert witness, they have to testify about specialized education, training, or experience that gives them greater insight into an issue than most people. A DWI defendant who failed the field sobriety tests because of a leg injury could have their doctor testify about that injury. The doctor’s medical training allows them to offer an opinion that the leg injury could have caused the defendant to stumble.

While the doctor has to establish their medical credentials, they do not necessarily have to establish that medicine is a reliable field in general. Decades of litigation have established that doctors can testify about their own patients. When a doctor or other person with scientific expertise testifies about something that is generally unknown to other scientists, however, additional scrutiny is necessary. This is where the special standard for new scientific evidence comes into play.

What standard does New Jersey use?

New Jersey courts use the Frye standard in criminal and motor vehicle cases, including DWIs. Named for a 1923 decision from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, it looks at whether a scientific theory, technique, or device has been generally accepted by experts in the relevant field. The New Jersey Supreme Court noted in a 1997 opinion that the Frye test requires a very high standard of proof. The subject of the testimony must have withstood extensive testing to demonstrate its validity. The rigor of the Frye test is actually why many jurisdictions no longer use it.

Is there a different standard in other states?

The federal court system and many states abandoned Frye in favor of the Daubert standard, named for a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Civil courts in New Jersey use Daubert instead of Frye. The Daubert standard is not as rigorous. It provides multiple ways for a party to litigation to show that new scientific testimony can stand up to the scientific method.

If you are facing charges of alleged DWI in a New Jersey municipal court, you need an experienced attorney who can advocate for your rights. DWI attorney Evan Levow is available to answer your questions and discuss your rights and options. Please contact us online or at (877) 593-1717 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you.

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