Post-Conviction Relief Allows Defendants to Challenge Legality of Sentence in New Jersey DWI Cases

After a conviction for driving while intoxicated (DWI), New Jersey law provides defendants with several means of challenging the verdict, or the process leading to that verdict. The appellate process, by which a defendant appeals the municipal court conviction to a higher court, has strict rules regarding grounds for appeal and filing deadlines. Post-conviction relief (PCR) takes place in the same court as the conviction, under the same case number. PCR bears some similarities to habeas corpus, particularly in the sense that it does not have the same time limits as an appeal. Under New Jersey law, a petition for PCR is the proper method for raising certain claims, while other claims can only be raised in an appeal. A recent Appellate Division decision, State v. Grabowski, addresses some of these differences.

The rules governing PCR petitions are found in the New Jersey Rules of Court (NJROCs). Different rules govern PCR petitions in criminal cases and traffic cases, which are typically heard in the Law Division of the Superior Court and in municipal court, respectively. DWI is a traffic offense under New Jersey law, not a criminal offense. The procedures for PCR are similar under both rules. Rule 3:22 of the NJROCs governs PCR in criminal cases, while Rule 7:10-2 governs PCRs in municipal court.

The deadline for filing an appeal in a New Jersey court is typically between 20 and 45 days after the order or judgment. Under Rule 7:10-2, a DWI defendant may file a petition for PCR up to five years after the conviction. If the purpose of the PCR petition is “to correct an illegal sentence,” or if the defendant can show that the failure to file within five years “was due to the defendant’s excusable neglect,” the five-year deadline does not apply. Both Rule 7:10-2 and 3:22 state that PCR “is not a substitute for appeal from a conviction,” and that a defendant cannot file a PCR petition during the time period when they could still file an appeal.

Grounds for post-conviction relief under Rule 7:10-2 include, as mentioned before, the imposition of a sentence that violates state law, such as by exceeding the maximum jail sentence or fine. They also include violations of the defendant’s rights under the U.S. or New Jersey Constitutions, the trial court’s lack of jurisdiction, and other grounds commonly asserted in habeas corpus petitions. The decision in Grabowski illustrates an important limit on PCR petitions.

Grabowski involved a PCR petition filed under Rule 3:22. The defendant pleaded guilty in Superior Court, Law Division to first-degree aggravated manslaughter and DWI. At the sentencing phase, the court considered multiple aggravating and mitigating factors, as permitted by state law, and sentenced the defendant to 10 years’ imprisonment. According to the Appellate Division, this is the lowest possible sentence for this level of offense.

After an unsuccessful appeal, the defendant filed a PCR petition. The Law Division denied the petition, finding that it was barred by Rule 3:22 because the central issue was an allegedly “excessive sentence.” PCR is available in cases of unlawful sentences, but for claims that a sentence is excessive or unreasonable, a defendant must use the appeals process.

In a New Jersey DWI case, a knowledgeable and experienced DWI attorney can help you understand your rights and defend you against the state’s claims. At Levow DWI Law, P.C., we have committed 100% of our law firm’s resources to advocating for people charged with DWI in New Jersey. Contact us today online or at (877) 975-3399 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Grounds for Post-Conviction Relief in New Jersey DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney, November 14, 2015

New Jersey Appellate Court Finds Guilty Plea Insufficient in DWI Case from 11 Years Ago, Orders New Trial, New Jersey DWI Attorney, July 16, 2015

New Jersey Considers “Excusable Neglect” Argument by Defendant Who Sought Post-Conviction Relief More than Two Decades After DWI Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney, July 1, 2015

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