New Jersey DWI Law Does Not Require Police to Witness Actual Driving by a Defendant

The law behind driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey is more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Multiple court decisions interpreting the DWI statute have held that prosecutors do not have to provide direct evidence that a person was driving. They only need to prove that a person had both the intent and the opportunity to drive while impaired by alcohol. The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division affirmed this view of the DWI statute in a February ruling. It denied the appeal of a defendant who was convicted after police found him sleeping in his car with the engine running. This is an important decision for both DWI lawyers and the general public.

New Jersey’s DWI statute establishes a two-part definition of the offense. The state must prove that a defendant (1) operated a vehicle (2) while impaired by drugs or alcohol. Prosecutors can prove the second point in several ways, including evidence of blood alcohol content (BAC) and eyewitness testimony from police about the defendant’s appearance and behavior. Much discussion of DWI defenses focuses on how the state proves impairment. Maybe the police failed to maintain the Alcotest device adequately, and the BAC evidence should be thrown out. Perhaps the officer who pulled a defendant over lacked a legal justification for the stop. Sometimes, however, defendants dispute the first element of the offense.

As the Appellate Division notes in its February decision, New Jersey courts have taken a broad view of what it means to “operate” a vehicle. In a 1987 decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court stated that “a pragmatic definition of this term is necessary” in order to fulfill the purpose of the DWI statute, which is “to deal with the risk that intoxicated drivers will cause harm to themselves and to others.” The court found that intoxicated drivers can pose this sort of risk “even before [they] may have put [their] car in motion.” It cited a 1963 decision, in which it held that “a person may be “operating” a motor vehicle…even when the vehicle has not been moved.”

In addition to the 1987 decision, the Appellate Division cited several examples of “operating” a vehicle without actually driving from its own prior decisions and other decisions by the New Jersey Supreme Court:
– A decision from the Appellate Division in 1985 held that a defendant “operated” their vehicle by attempting to move it without the engine running.
– In another decision from 1987, the state supreme court held that, when police see “see someone who is drunk stagger out of a tavern into a car,” they do not “have to wait until the driver turns the ignition key before making the arrest.” The court acknowledged that this case presents “circumstances [that] will rarely, if ever, be repeated.”
– The Appellate Division ruled in 2005 that “operation” may include situations where police witness a person “under circumstances indicating that [they] had been driving while intoxicated.”

The Appellate Division’s recent ruling cited all of these decisions in affirming the defendant’s conviction. It found that the evidence met the broad definition of “operation” of a vehicle in New Jersey’s DWI law.

DWI attorney Evan Levow has dedicated his law practice to representing people facing alleged DWI charges in New Jersey courts. If you have been charged with DWI in New Jersey, please contact us online or at (877) 593-1717 today to schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your legal rights and options.

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