New Jersey Appellate Courts Are Limited in Their Ability to Review Factual Findings in DWI Cases

A prosecution for alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey usually begins in the municipal court of the city, borough, town, township, or village in which the arrest occurred. A defendant can appeal a DWI conviction for reversible error, abuse of discretion, and other grounds. A July 2015 appellate court decision, State v. Hwang, offers an overview of the appeals process in New Jersey DWI cases.

An appeal from a municipal court order or verdict goes to the New Jersey Superior Court, Law Division in the county where the municipal court is located. From there, it would go to the Superior Court, Appellate Division. At this level of appeal, the court has much less discretion to review the lower courts’ findings of fact. Further appeals go to the New Jersey Supreme Court, and finally the United States Supreme Court.

A Hillsborough Township police officer pulled over the defendant in Hwang in October 2012 after allegedly witnessing her swerve across the median line several times. He testified that she failed several field sobriety tests, refused to comply with his orders, and failed to provide an adequate breath sample for the Alcotest. Prosecutors charged her with DWI, refusal to submit to breath testing, failure to stay in the right lane, and resisting arrest. While the case was pending, the defendant sued the arresting officer, claiming illegal arrest and assault. She later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the township.

During the trial in the municipal court, the defendant “adamantly denied resisting” and claimed that the officer arrested her “to teach her a lesson.” The municipal court judge rejected this account in a written opinion and ruled that the officer’s testimony was “utterly credible.” It found the defendant guilty on all counts and sentenced her to a term of license suspension followed by ignition interlock use, participation in the Intoxicated Driver Program, and payments of fines and fees.

The defendant appealed, first to the Law Division. At that level, the court conducts a trial de novo, meaning that it may reconsider any issue of fact or law presented in the municipal court. The Law Division judge affirmed the municipal court’s ruling, finding that the arresting officer was credible and that the state had met its burden of proof as to all charges. The case then went to the Appellate Division, which issued the most recent ruling in the case.

The Appellate Division dismissed three of the defendant’s five points on appeal outright:  that the municipal court and Law Division judges did not “do their job[s] properly,” that the defendant “should have been given a jury trial,” and that jury trials should be provided in all criminal prosecutions. Courts have long held that the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a trial by jury does not apply to “petty” offenses.

The two remaining points of appeal claimed that the state’s evidence was insufficient to support the verdict and that the two lower-court judges abused their discretion. The Appellate Division does not have the authority to conduct a de novo review of a DWI case. According to a 1964 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, State v. Johnson, it can only assess whether the lower courts’ findings are supported by sufficient credible evidence. It therefore tends to give substantial weight to the findings of fact in the municipal court and the Law Division. In this case, the Appellate Court saw no reason to disturb the conviction.

Defending against a charge of alleged DWI in a New Jersey requires careful planning and preparation. A knowledgeable and experienced DWI appeals lawyer can explain your rights and prepare the best possible defense for your particular case. At Levow DWI Law, P.C., we have dedicated 100% of our practice to defending New Jersey DWI cases. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (877) 975-3399.

More Blog Posts:

Court Rules on Right Against Self-Incrimination, Right to Jury Trial in New Jersey DWI Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 27, 2015

Is There a Right to Trial by Jury in New Jersey DWI Cases? New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 22, 2014

New Jersey Supreme Court Dismisses DWI Charge, Finding that Defendant’s Right to a Speedy Trial Was Violated, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 7, 2014

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