Unbalanced scalesDriving while intoxicated (DWI) is a traffic offense, rather than a criminal offense, under New Jersey law. Most—although not all—of the protections offered in criminal prosecutions by the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions apply to DWI cases. The guarantee of due process in legal proceedings, found in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, is one of the most important protections. New Jersey’s DWI statute creates a legal presumption of intoxication for anyone whose blood alcohol content (BAC) is 0.08 percent or higher. The New Jersey Appellate Division discussed whether this violates due process back in 1959, in State v. Protokowicz. Despite its age, the case still has relevance to DWI defense today.

The term “due process” generally means the right to fair legal proceedings. The U.S. Constitution states twice that no one may “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Courts have interpreted the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause to apply to the federal government, while the Fourteenth Amendment applies to the states. The New Jersey Constitution also provides for due process in Article I, section 1, stating that “[a]ll persons…have certain natural and unalienable rights,” including “those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, [and] of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property.”

The New Jersey DWI statute defines the offense in two ways. A person commits the offense if (1) they “operate[] a motor vehicle while under the influence” of alcohol or drugs, or (2) drive with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher. In the second type of DWI, BAC evidence creates a presumption that a defendant was “under the influence.” State laws requiring drivers to submit to breath testing facilitate the collection of BAC evidence. Since this presumption seems to put a DWI defendant at a disadvantage from the very beginning, does it pose due process problems?

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bicycle on bridgeOn multiple occasions, prosecutors in this state have charged people with driving while intoxicated (DWI) for operating a bicycle while allegedly under the influence. This raises an interesting question about the scope of DWI law. Courts have reached different conclusions about whether operating a non-motorized bicycle—meaning one that is solely powered by a person’s own effort—constitutes DWI under New Jersey law. The Appellate Division does not appear to have ruled on the question directly, but trial court decisions point to the conclusion that the DWI statute only applies to motorized vehicles.

The New Jersey statute defining DWI specifically states that an offense occurs when a person is operating a “motor vehicle.” State law defines a “motor vehicle” to include most vehicles “propelled otherwise than by muscular power.” This definition excludes trains and other rail-based vehicles, as well as “motorized bicycles.” The law defines a “motorized bicycle” as a pedal bicycle that can be assisted by a motor that allows it to travel at a maximum of 25 miles per hour—commonly known as a moped. A separate statute addresses operating a motorized bicycle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and it imposes the same penalties as in a DWI case involving a motor vehicle.

Several New Jersey trial courts have addressed the question of whether the DWI statute applies to bicycles. Since none of these cases resulted in an Appellate Division ruling, they are not binding on other courts. They may still be persuasive, though. In 1982, the Superior Court in Somerset County held in State v. Tehan that the DWI statute applies to bicycles, but only to a partial extent. Bicycle riders are “subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle,” the court noted. It also found that, since riding a bicycle does not require a license, the driver’s license suspension provisions of the DWI statute do not apply to bicycles. It affirmed the municipal court’s guilty verdict and the fine, but it reversed the license suspension.

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AppealEvery 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.

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Las Vegas signThe statute defining driving while intoxicated (DWI) in New Jersey establishes two ways for prosecutors to prove guilt. First, they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant “operate[d] a motor vehicle while under the influence of” alcohol or drugs. Alternatively, they can show that a defendant operated a motor vehicle while their blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.08 percent or higher. Despite the common name of the offense, however, the statute says nothing about “intoxication.” It also omits another word commonly used in discussions of DWI, “impairment.” All the way back in 1964, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in State v. Johnson that a defendant’s actual impairment is not an essential element of DWI, and the ability to drive safely anyway is not a defense.

Operating a motor vehicle with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher is sometimes known as DWI per se, since the BAC evidence effectively creates a legal presumption of guilt. A defendant can challenge BAC evidence by questioning the accuracy of the testing device. State law requires police to follow specific procedures when administering a breath test, and the device requires regular maintenance and careful calibration. A failure by police to follow proper procedures can result in the exclusion of test results at trial.

A DWI conviction is possible without BAC evidence, or even with evidence that a defendant’s BAC was less than 0.08 percent, if the state provides evidence that the defendant exhibited signs of intoxication. This usually involves eyewitness testimony from police officers and others. Challenging this sort of evidence might require impeaching a witness’ credibility or providing a counter-narrative to the prosecution’s story. A defendant can also challenge the prosecution’s entire case if they can show that the original traffic stop or arrest violated their Fourth Amendment rights.

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Police carThe Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution protects numerous rights against abuses and injustice in criminal cases. Most of these constitutional rights apply in New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases, including the Fourth Amendment’s protection of people’s right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Identifying violations of these rights is a major component of defending against DWI charges. Most DWI cases begin with a traffic stop, in which police pull a vehicle over on the road. Police must have a “reasonable suspicion” of some sort of wrongdoing for a traffic stop to be legal. Challenging the legality of a stop can lead to the exclusion of most or all of the state’s evidence and the dismissal of the case.

According to the Fourth Amendment, police must obtain a warrant before conducting a search or seizing a person or their property. That warrant must be supported by probable cause to believe that doing so will produce evidence of a crime or another offense. The U.S. Supreme Court has held, however, that police may briefly detain a person to investigate possible criminal activity when they do not have probable cause, if they have a “reasonable suspicion” of something unlawful. This type of stop is known as a “Terry stop,” after the Supreme Court’s decision in Terry v. Ohio in 1968.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that traffic stops are “seizures” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and they are therefore subject to the restrictions established by Terry. A 1984 Supreme Court decision, Berkemer v. McCarty, found that Terry applies to traffic stops for suspected traffic offenses, including DWI. It also held that people are entitled to the protections of the Fifth Amendment, including the rights described in Miranda v. Arizona, if they are taken into custody during a traffic stop.

EmojiAnyone who watches cop shows on television knows the warning police must read to a suspect when they place them under arrest. Known as the “Miranda warning,” after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1966 decision in Miranda v. Arizona, it is legally required before police may formally interrogate a suspect. The list of rights identified in the Miranda warning are commonly known as Miranda rights. Miranda is considered a landmark decision in criminal justice. Although New Jersey’s driving while intoxicated (DWI) statute classifies the offense as a motor vehicle offense, rather than a “crime,” Miranda still applies when police take a DWI suspect into custody.

The Miranda decision arose from a confession signed by a suspect after hours of police interrogation, during which time he was never advised of various constitutional rights. The Supreme Court held that the confession was inadmissible because the defendant did not give it voluntarily, but instead under duress from police officers. The court further stated that police must stop an interrogation once an individual has asserted certain rights. It directed police to advise people of their rights before or at the time they are arrested. From this, the Miranda warning was born. The court would later specifically rule that Miranda applies to DWI cases in Berkemer v. McCarty in 1984.

The first right identified in the Miranda warning—the right to remain silent—refers to the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination during “custodial interrogation.” The important question to consider regarding how Miranda applies in New Jersey DWI cases involves the definition of “custody,” as well as the meaning of “silence.” The two are closely related, as the caselaw shows, and DWI cases present at least one specific complication of the idea of the right to remain silent. In New Jersey and many other states, DWI suspects are required by law to provide breath samples for chemical testing. Courts have generally held that this does not violate the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination.

iPhone 5SThe Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right against self-incrimination. The extent of this protection is not always clear, however, and the right to refuse to provide information to police has limits. In driving while intoxicated (DWI) investigations, suspects are often asked to provide breath samples for chemical testing. The evidence obtained from breath testing can provide the state with nearly all of the information it needs to bring a DWI charge. In New Jersey DWI cases, providing a breath sample is actually mandatory under the law. Is this the sort of self-incrimination covered by the Fifth Amendment? A long line of court decisions says that no, it is not, but understanding why may be helpful in understanding the rights a DWI defendant does have.

Under New Jersey law, a refusal to submit a breath sample for chemical testing, upon a request by police, is a motor vehicle offense punishable by a fine and a driver’s license suspension. New Jersey courts have imposed strict requirements for submitting to breath testing. Anything other than unambiguous agreement could constitute refusal. A 2007 decision from the New Jersey Appellate Division, State v. Spell, held that a DWI suspect has no right to request testing after they have already refused. In that case, the defendant claimed he was having chest pains and could not provide a breath sample, but he told an officer he was feeling better after a hour. He offered to submit a sample at that time, but the officer “declined because defendant had already refused.”

The Fifth Amendment states that “no person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” This applies to sworn testimony in a court of law, which is where we get the term “pleading the Fifth.” It also protects the “right to remain silent” during custodial police interrogations, which generally means after a person has been placed under arrest and advised of their rights. In most situations, a person must affirmatively state that they are invoking their right against self-incrimination, or else police may continue questioning them.

Interrogation Room at Alcatraz IslandWhen police detain and question a person on suspicion of driving while intoxicated (DWI), the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution protect that person’s rights. The Fourteenth Amendment officially extended most of the Bill of Rights to state-level law enforcement, meaning that local police are subject to the same constraints as the federal government. In the context of New Jersey DWI cases, the Fourth Amendment states that police cannot detain someone, such as by pulling over their vehicle, without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. The Fifth Amendment states that a defendant cannot be forced to testify against themselves, and limits the state’s ability to use certain statements made by defendants against them in court. Exactly when this right against self-incrimination applies has been a matter of ongoing dispute in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has made several rulings specifically addressing incriminating statements in DWI cases.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case addressing the right against self-incrimination during police interrogation is Miranda v. Arizona, decided in 1966. Information obtained by police from a person, after they have invoked their “right to remain silent” during “custodial interrogation,” is inadmissible in court. While people can refuse to answer police questions at almost any time, Miranda obligates police to advise people of their rights in specific scenarios. Many subsequent court decisions have found that Miranda only applies once a person has been formally placed under arrest and read this list of rights. Whether a person is “under arrest” during a traffic stop is a complicated question.

Police do not typically give Miranda warnings to DWI suspects at the beginning of a traffic stop. Still, officers may ask questions of a driver, and ask the driver to perform field sobriety tests. With some exceptions, courts do not consider this to be a “custodial interrogation” within the meaning of Miranda. Police are therefore not obligated to advise people of their Miranda rights at this point, placing the burden of invoking the right against self-incrimination on the driver.
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Steps DownNew Jersey law regarding driving while intoxicated (DWI) imposes progressively harsher penalties for multiple convictions. A defendant might not face heightened penalties, however, through “step-down” provisions in New Jersey statutes and caselaw. If enough time passes between convictions, a second offense might be treated as a first offense for sentencing purposes. A step-down might also apply in other situations, such as if a prior conviction involved a guilty plea without representation by an attorney. Convictions that have been modified through the post-conviction relief (PCR) process may also be subject to a step-down. Courts must weigh a wide range of factors in determining how to sentence a second, third, or subsequent conviction. The Appellate Division took on several of these factors in a recent decision, State v. Terpstra.

The New Jersey DWI statute imposes increasingly harsh sentences for second DWI offenses and third or subsequent offenses. The statute directs courts to treat a second conviction as a first conviction, for the purposes of sentencing, if the first offense occurred over a decade before the second. Likewise, if a third offense occurs more than 10 years after the second, the court shall sentence it as a second offense. The relevant date is when the offenses occurred, rather than the convictions.

Representation by counsel in prior DWI cases may also affect whether the step-down provisions apply. In 1990, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an important ruling, State v. Laurick. The court held that courts may not impose sentencing enhancements if a prior conviction involved a non-counseled guilty plea. In other words, a second DWI conviction must be treated as a first at sentencing if the defendant pleaded guilty in the first case without a lawyer. A third offense would be sentenced as a second.

test tubeThe legal standards in New Jersey for proving impairment by alcohol in cases of alleged driving while intoxicated (DWI) are fairly well established. Prosecutors can offer evidence of a defendant’s alleged blood alcohol content (BAC), or they can introduce eyewitness and expert testimony. The DWI statute does not only apply to alcohol, however. It also makes it an offense to drive while “under the influence of…[a] narcotic, hallucinogenic or habit-producing drug.” New Jersey has no equivalent to the BAC limit of 0.08 percent for drugs. A handful of states have established “legal limits” for certain drugs, but no consistent standards exist. Furthermore, breath testing cannot establish the amount of any particular drug in a person’s system, meaning that the state must rely on blood and urine testing. As legal marijuana becomes more prevalent in various parts of the country, these inconsistencies are likely to become clearer.

Under New Jersey law, a driver commits a DWI offense if they operate a vehicle with a BAC of at least 0.08 percent. This is sometimes known as DWI per se, since the state can meet its burden of proof based solely on BAC evidence and evidence that the defendant actually was driving or imminently intended to drive. Prosecutors can also establish guilt without BAC evidence—or occasionally with test results showing a BAC of less than 0.08 percent—through testimony and other evidence. This often includes testimony from police officers who observed a defendant’s demeanor and appearance, particularly if the defendant was driving erratically, had slurred speech, or otherwise displayed outward signs of intoxication by alcohol.

The DWI statute does not mention any specific drug other than alcohol, but courts have interpreted it to mean both illegal drugs and legal drugs that can affect a person’s ability to drive or operate machinery. They have held that eyewitness and expert testimony is sufficient to prove impairment by drugs. In 1975, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in State v. Tamburro that the state must offer evidence that a defendant’s “conduct, physical and mental condition and the symptoms displayed” are consistent with the effects of a narcotic. If the state meets this burden, the court held, it does not have to identify any specific narcotic. The court held in 2006’s State v. Bealor that, unlike in cases involving alcohol intoxication, lay testimony alone is not sufficient to establish impairment by marijuana or other drugs. Police officers with proper training, according to the court, may offer expert testimony.

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