Prosecutors in New Jersey DWI cases have the burden of proving every element of driving while intoxicated (DWI) beyond a reasonable doubt. They must also ensure that the proceedings accord with a defendant’s due process rights. This includes a defendant’s right to understand the charges brought against them and the likely penalties that could result from a guilty verdict. New Jersey, along with many other states, has an implied consent statute that effectively requires drivers to submit to breath testing when ordered to do so by a police officer. A separate code section makes it a motor vehicle offense, punishable by a fine and driver’s license suspension, to refuse to submit to breath testing. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled in two cases that alleged due process violations because of summonses that cited the wrong code section. In both cases, State v. Dito and State v. Horton, the summonses cited the implied consent statute, rather than the section making refusal an offense.The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from depriving persons of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” One aspect of this requirement involves “fair notice” of potential criminal penalties for specific conduct. The U.S. Supreme Court has found statutes to be unconstitutional for failing to provide fair notice. In a 1964 decision, Bouie v. City of Columbia, the court held that a trespass statute did not clearly define the offense, such that the defendants knew that their conduct was illegal.
The defendants in Dito and Horton argued that New Jersey’s implied consent and refusal statutes present a similar question. The implied consent law, found in § 39:4-50.2 of the New Jersey Revised Statutes, states that anyone operating a vehicle on a public roadway in New Jersey “shall be deemed to have given his consent to the taking of samples of his breath” in DWI investigations. It does not, however, prescribe any penalty for refusing to provide a breath sample. The provisions for penalties are found in § 39:4-50.4a, which mandates driver’s license revocation and a fine.
The question presented in Dito and Horton was whether a summons for refusal that cites § 39:4-50.2 instead of § 39:4-50.4a constitutes “fair notice.” The defendant in Dito moved to dismiss the refusal charge in municipal court on this ground. The Law Division granted the motion, holding that “that the error was fatal because it failed to inform defendant of the nature of the charge against him.”