New Jersey Appellate Court Finds Guilty Plea Insufficient in DWI Case from 11 Years Ago, Orders New Trial

A New Jersey DWI defendant will get a new trial 11 years after he entered a guilty plea. The Superior Court, Appellate Division ruled in State v. Aratow that his 2004 plea did not meet several constitutional requirements set out in the New Jersey Rules of Court. The defendant filed a petition for post-conviction relief (PCR) in 2011 in connection with a new DWI charge, seeking review of the 2004 plea. The court held that the record did not support the lower courts’ findings that the defendant pleaded guilty in 2004 with a full understanding of the consequences, nor did the municipal court establish all of the facts required to sustain a DWI conviction. It reversed the lower court rulings and remanded the case to the municipal court for trial on the original charges.

The defendant received his first conviction for driving while intoxicated (DWI) in November 1988. He was charged with DWI a second time in February 2004, and he appeared pro se in municipal court that April. The municipal judge questioned the defendant about his right to counsel and his decision not to have an attorney present. The judge stated that, since the defendant’s first DWI conviction was over a decade old, the court would treat this as a first offense. The defendant stated, under oath, that he drank about three vodka and tonics on the night of his arrest and that he wished to plead guilty. The court entered the plea at that time.

In June 2009, the defendant was charged with DWI again. He pleaded guilty in June 2011, but the court treated it as a third offense and sentenced him to a 10-year license suspension and 180 days in jail. It stayed the jail sentence so that he could file a PCR petition. In the petition, the defendant claimed, in part, that his 2004 guilty plea did not meet certain constitutional standards.

The Law Division denied the PCR petition, and the defendant appealed. He raised several points, including a claim that his guilty plea did not meet the standards set out in Rule 7:6-2(a)(1) of the New Jersey Rules of Court. This rule prohibits a municipal judge from accepting a guilty plea without making certain findings on the record, including “that the plea is made voluntarily with understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea.”

The appellate court found multiple defects in the municipal court’s acceptance of the guilty plea in 2004. The municipal court did not verbally inform the defendant of the enhanced penalties that would result from a subsequent DWI conviction, and the appellate court found that the defendant might not have entered the plea had the municipal court done so.

The appellate court also found that the municipal court did not question the defendant about all of the required elements of a DWI offense. While it asked him how many drinks he had, for example, it did not ask him about the length of time over which he had those drinks, the size of the drinks, or whether the drinks impaired his driving. These defects, the appellate court found, merited a new trial.

If you have been charged with alleged DWI in New Jersey, you need an experienced and skilled DWI lawyer to present the best possible defense of your rights. The attorneys at Levow & Associates have dedicated 100% of our practice to defending DWI cases. We are available to help you 24/7. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us online or at (877) 975-3399.

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

New Jersey Appellate Court Considers Whether “House Arrest” May Be Credited Towards Mandatory Minimum DWI Sentence, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, May 20, 2015

New Jersey Supreme Court Reverses DWI Conviction, Rules that Trial Court Could Not Consider Evidence from Pre-Trial Suppression Hearing as Proof of Guilt, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 3, 2014

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