How Does the Right to a Speedy Trial Work in DWI Cases in New Jersey?

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a “speedy trial” in criminal prosecutions. The state cannot make you wait an unreasonably long time, possibly while you remain in custody, to have your day in court. Although driving while intoxicated (DWI) is not considered a criminal offense under New Jersey law, the municipal courts that hear DWI cases use many of the same procedures. Most of the rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment apply to motor vehicle offenses like DWI, including the right to a speedy trial. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued a ruling in a case in which a defendant alleged violation of this right, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The court’s decision offers a useful reminder for New Jersey DWI defendants about their rights.

Violations of a defendant’s constitutional rights can sometimes result in the dismissal of the charges against them. If a DWI defendant can establish, for example, that the police officer who pulled them over had no reasonable suspicion of illegal activity, the court can suppress all evidence obtained from the traffic stop because of the violation of the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. If this leaves prosecutors with no evidence, the court could dismiss the case. A violation of the right to a speedy trial can also lead to the dismissal of the charges if a trial has not taken place yet, or the reversal of a conviction and sentence on appeal.

The U.S. Supreme Court established a four-part test for evaluating speedy trial claims in 1972’s Barker v. Wingo:
1. The length of the delay before trial;
2. The reason(s) for the delay;
3. The circumstances in which the defendant is claiming a violation of the right to a speedy trial; and
4. The extent to which the delay has prejudiced the defendant’s rights.
The court left it to individual courts to determine how much time is too much for the first part of the Barker test. Prosecutors could claim a valid reason for what appears to be an unreasonable delay. A court must balance this with issues like the availability of defense witnesses and other evidence after a significant amount of time has passed.

The New Jersey Supreme Court addressed this issue with regard to DWI cases in 2013. It ruled that, in general, municipal courts should begin to consider the other parts of the Barker test after a delay of more than one year in a DWI case. Many DWI defendants rely on witness testimony, and the longer they have to wait for a trial, the more they risk witnesses being unavailable. The one-year time period typically begins with the defendant’s arrest on suspicion of DWI.

The New Jersey Supreme Court issued its recent speedy trial ruling on June 27, 2022. The case involved criminal charges, but the court’s remarks about the length of the delay may be relevant to DWI cases. The defendant was arrested in November 2019 and indicted in February 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic began a month later, leading to many delays in the judicial system. At the time of oral arguments before the state supreme court in April 2022, his trial still had not started. The court acknowledged the unprecedented challenges presented by the pandemic and provided guidelines for avoiding such lengthy delays in the future.

DWI attorney Evan Levow represents people charged with alleged DWI in municipal courts in New Jersey. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team, please contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717.

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