Every defendant charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey is entitled to a trial by a municipal court judge. If a defendant believes that the municipal court has made an error in its verdict, they can appeal to the New Jersey Superior Court, Law Division. This court has the authority to conduct a new trial. From there, a defendant can appeal to the Appellate Division, and then to the New Jersey Supreme Court. These higher courts, however, are limited in their ability to review or reverse the factual findings of the lower courts, and they are often hesitant to second-guess a trial court’s conclusions. The Appellate Division reviewed these limitations in a March 2017 decision.
Municipal courts in New Jersey have jurisdiction over motor vehicle offenses, including DWI. A DWI case is assigned to the municipal court of the city, borough, town, or other municipality where the offense allegedly occurred. At trial, the municipal judge hears the arguments from the prosecution and the defendant, reviews the evidence, and renders a verdict. This is generally the only time the parties may present live witnesses, giving the municipal judge a unique perspective on the case.
According to Rule 3:23 of the New Jersey Rules of Court, a defendant has the right to appeal a DWI conviction in municipal court to the Law Division. This court may conduct a trial de novo, meaning that it is not bound by the municipal court’s factual or legal findings, and it may consider the case completely anew. That said, the Law Division typically only has access to the record of the proceedings in the municipal court. This includes all of the evidence presented at trial, but it does not include whatever understanding of the case may come from watching the testimony of witnesses in person. For this reason, courts are often unwilling to upset a municipal judge’s factual findings without evidence of a significant error.