Post-conviction relief (PCR) allows a defendant to challenge a conviction even after the time period to file an appeal has passed, provided they can assert certain grounds for doing so. Under New Jersey law, a PCR petition must allege a significant violation of a defendant’s legal or constitutional rights, rather than just an error by a lower court. If a defendant can establish a violation of their rights, the court may order a new trial, modify the sentence, or, if the defendant is incarcerated, order their release. A recent decision by the New Jersey Appellate Division, State v. Cooper, considered a claim for post-conviction review in a driving while intoxicated (DWI) case, based, in part, on a claim of insufficient evidence. Specifically, the defendant’s blood alcohol content (BAC) test results were below the legal limit, and the defendant argued that the remaining evidence did not support a finding of guilt.
New Jersey municipal courts have original jurisdiction over DWI cases, so that is where defendants must file petitions for PCR. Rule 7:10-2 of the New Jersey Rules of Court governs PCR procedures. It identifies several possible grounds for PCR, including any ground that could be raised to challenge a conviction “by habeas corpus or any other common law or statutory remedy.” This catch-all category covers a wide area of law. In Cooper, the defendant challenged the sufficiency of the evidence but did so by alleging that his counsel at trial was ineffective.
Prosecutors can offer evidence that a defendant operated a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol in several ways. State law defines DWI to include driving with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher, but the state can also use testimony by police officers who witnessed the defendant’s behavior during and after their arrest, and who have training in identifying signs of alcohol intoxication. Some New Jersey police departments also employ officers trained in recognizing the physical indicators of drug use. The reliability of such testimony, especially with regard to drugs, is often contested at trial.
After pulling over the defendant in Cooper, the officer claimed to have observed multiple physical signs of alcohol intoxication. The defendant’s BAC results, however, showed only 0.05 percent. An officer with drug recognition training examined the defendant, who admitted to having a few drinks and taking “two Lorazepam pills,” and concluded that he was “under the influence of a central nervous system depressant and alcohol.” The municipal court convicted the defendant based on the testimony of the arresting officer and the drug recognition expert. The defendant’s appeal was unsuccessful.
The defendant petitioned for PCR, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel because his lawyer “fail[ed] to object to the laboratory report and fail[ed] to call an expert.” The court denied the petition, noting that a defendant claiming ineffective assistance of counsel must meet a two-prong test established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984’s Strickland v. Washington: (1) the attorney must have made errors that were so severe that they kept them from functioning as legal counsel, and (2) those errors must have prejudiced the defendant’s case. Here, the court found that the municipal court did not rely on the defendant’s laboratory report, so failing to challenge it caused no prejudice to the defendant’s case.
If you are facing charges of alleged DWI in a New Jersey municipal court, DWI appeals attorney Evan Levow can prepare a strong defense, based on the individual circumstances of your case. Contact us online or at (877) 593-1717 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team.
More Blog Posts:
Allegations of Record Tampering Could Affect 20,000 New Jersey DWI Convictions, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 12, 2016
New Jersey Appellate Division Vacates Sentence in DWI Case Because of Unusual Procedural History, “Actual Vindictiveness” of Municipal Court Judge, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 15, 2015
Post-Conviction Relief Allows Defendants to Challenge Legality of Sentence in New Jersey DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 8, 2015