Is a “Necessity” Defense Possible in a New Jersey DWI Case?

The defense of “necessity” claims that a person charged with an offense was justified in committing an otherwise unlawful act, and therefore should not face legal penalties. New Jersey law, as interpreted by New Jersey courts, sets a high bar for a defendant claiming necessity, but once a defendant clears this bar, the burden shifts to the state to disprove the necessity defense beyond a reasonable doubt. A recent decision by the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, State v. A.T., considered whether a defendant could raise the necessity defense in a DWI case. While the court ultimately affirmed the defendant’s conviction, it addressed some important criteria for establishing necessity in such a case.

The defendant in A.T. was found guilty of third-offense driving while intoxicated. She was sentenced to 180 days in jail, a 10-year license suspension, and one year of ignition interlock use. The Law Division affirmed the verdict and sentence, and the case went to the Appellate Division. The necessity defense arose from the circumstances that led to the defendant being behind the wheel on the night she was arrested. She was allegedly concerned about domestic violence, and unfortunately the various courts’ rulings follow the common pattern of demanding a high burden of proving such a threat.

The defendant testified that she was at her boyfriend’s apartment, drinking beer, when her boyfriend’s brother told her to leave. She refused to leave, and she claimed that he became upset, began yelling, and threatened to call the police. He also, she alleged, prevented her from using the telephone. She testified that both she and her boyfriend tried to calm the brother down, and they told him that the defendant was in no condition to drive. She claimed that she left the apartment because “she feared physical abuse and arrest.” She drove part of the way home, but then she changed her mind and turned around. She testified that she did not think she could get all the way home safely, and that if the police were at her boyfriend’s apartment, they might be able to help her. On her way back to the apartment, she struck two parked vehicles, which led to her arrest.

The appellate court described the four-part test for proving necessity, established by state law and decisions like State v. Romano:  (1) an emergency situation that was not caused by the defendant; (2) a reasonable expectation of imminent harm to the defendant or another person; (3) no reasonable opportunity to avoid or prevent this harm without committing the alleged illegal act; and (4) a risk of harm that would outweigh the severity of the alleged offense.

The court found that the defendant had not established a reasonable fear of imminent harm, based on the fact that the brother apparently did not threaten direct injury to the defendant. It also found that she had “reasonable alternatives to avoid harm,” such as “lock[ing] herself in her car,” “call[ing] for a taxi,” or “simply wait[ing] for the police to arrive.” Finally, the court found that her attempt to return to the apartment “severely undermined” her necessity defense.

An arrest for alleged DWI can seriously affect your life. A knowledgeable and experienced DWI attorney can help you understand the legal process and protect your rights. We have dedicated our entire law practice at Levow DWI Law, P.C. to defending people accused of DWI in New Jersey. Contact us online or at (877) 975-3399 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case.

More Blog Posts:

New Jersey Considers “Excusable Neglect” Argument by Defendant Who Sought Post-Conviction Relief More than Two Decades After DWI Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, July 1, 2015

Defendant Argues “Mistake of Law” in New Jersey DWI Appeal, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 25, 2015

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

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