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

The New Jersey Supreme Court, in affirming the reversal of a DWI conviction, cautioned municipal courts throughout the state to keep pretrial suppression hearings separate from actual trials, noting that the two types of proceedings have substantially different purposes. The decision in State v. Gibson, issued on September 16, 2014, involved a conviction by a municipal court based solely on evidence presented at a pre-trial hearing on the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence, instead of at trial. The Appellate Division reversed the conviction and entered a judgment of acquittal. The Supreme Court affirmed the reversal but not the acquittal. It remanded the case for a new trial in municipal court.

A Winslow Township patrolman pulled the defendant over in November 2007 after the defendant allegedly passed his vehicle at a “high rate of speed” and changed lanes without signaling. The defendant reportedly agreed to field sobriety tests, but resisted arrest. He was charged with DWI, reckless driving, and failure to signal. A grand jury indicted him on several counts, including third-degree aggravated assault on a police officer. He pleaded guilty to the first count of the indictment in December 2008, and the rest of the counts were dismissed. The court remanded the motor vehicle charges, including the DWI charge, to the municipal court.

The defendant moved to suppress the evidence obtained in the traffic stop. The municipal court held a hearing on the motion in May 2010, where the patrolman testified regarding the alleged circumstances of the traffic stop. At a continuation of the hearing that October, the defense introduced the video of the stop and claimed that it contradicted the patrolman’s testimony. The court denied the motion to suppress, ruling that the patrolman had reasonable suspicion for the stop and probable cause for the arrest. It immediately moved on to the trial on the merits.

The prosecution had no other evidence besides the patrolman’s testimony. The court asked the defense if that testimony could satisfy the state’s burden of proof. The defense argued in favor of dismissing the charges but did not expressly object to the trial court’s reliance on the suppression hearing evidence. The court did not ask if they wanted to cross-examine the patrolman further. It found the defendant guilty and imposed penalties of a 90-day license suspension and a $250 fine.

After the Law Division affirmed the conviction, the Appellate Division reversed it. A trial court must decide a specific question at a suppression hearing:  whether a traffic stop violated a defendant’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Appellate Division described the municipal court’s role in this type of proceeding as a “fact-finder in a quasi-criminal matter.” At trial, the court must consider all of the evidence and determine whether the state has met its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The Appellate Division held that “fundamental fairness” prevents a court from relying solely on suppression hearing evidence to make a finding of guilt. The Supreme Court agreed in a unanimous opinion but found that, since the municipal court’s error was procedural in nature, the correct remedy was to grant the defendant a new trial rather than an acquittal.

If you have been charged with DWI in New Jersey, you need the assistance of an experienced and skilled DWI attorney in order to mount an effective defense. We have dedicated our entire law practice at Levow & Associates to DWI defense, and we are available 24/7 to help you. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we may assist you, contact us online or at (877) 975-3399.

More Blog Posts:

Court Ruling May Make Footage of Traffic Stops Available Earlier in New Jersey DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 28, 2014

Driver Successfully Fights DWI by Citing First Amendment, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, October 30, 2014

New Jersey Law Enforcement Patrol Vehicles Required to Have Video Cameras Under New Law, Funds to Come from New DWI Surcharges, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, October 1, 2014

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