Where Do DWI Cases Go in the New Jersey Court System?

Under the laws of the state of New Jersey, driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a motor vehicle offense rather than a criminal offense. While a DWI conviction can result in serious penalties, including the possibility of jail time, the New Jersey court system does not deal with DWI cases in the same way it handles most criminal cases. A defendant in a New Jersey DWI case, for example, does not have the right to a trial by jury as described in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. DWI is considered a “petty” offense, and therefore it is not covered by all of the provisions of the Bill of Rights that apply in criminal cases. Most other rights, like the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and the Sixth Amendment’s right to confront one’s accuser, still apply in DWI cases. Understanding which courts may consider DWI prosecutions and appeals, and how they are allowed to consider them, is important when planning a defense against DWI charges.

Municipal courts have original jurisdiction over DWI cases under Rule 7:1 of the New Jersey Rules of Court (NJROC). The municipal court judge handles all pretrial motions and other matters, and presides over the trial if one occurs. The judge will render a verdict and decide on a sentence. Several levels of appeal are available after a conviction in municipal court. If a person seeks post-conviction relief, however, NJROC 7:10-2 requires them to file a petition in the municipal court where the conviction took place.

Appeals from a municipal court conviction go to the Superior Court, Law Division. NJROC 3:23 requires a defendant to file a notice of appeal within 20 days of their conviction. The Law Division, upon receiving a transcript from the municipal court, may reverse the conviction and remand the case to the lower court, or it may conduct a trial de novo. While the Law Division is not bound by the municipal court’s findings of law or fact, it must “give due…regard to the opportunity of the [municipal court] to judge the credibility of the witnesses,” according to the New Jersey Supreme Court 1964 ruling in State v. Johnson.

If the trial de novo before the Law Division also results in a conviction, the defendant can appeal to the Superior Court, Appellate Division under NJROC 2:2-3. Unlike the Law Division, the Appellate Division does not conduct a de novo review of the lower court proceedings. In the Johnson decision mentioned earlier, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the Appellate Division’s first job is to determine whether the record shows “sufficient credible evidence” to support the lower court’s ruling. The burden is effectively now on the defendant to assert lack of credible evidence. The Appellate Division can only revisit the lower court ruling if it finds insufficient credible evidence.

From the Appellate Division, a defendant can appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which only accepts a tiny percentage of petitions. If the court accepts a defendant’s petition and hears the case, the only remaining place to appeal is the U.S. Supreme Court. This court has only ruled on a few DWI cases in its history, including Michigan State Police v. Sitz in 1990 and Missouri v. McNeely in 2013.

If you are facing DWI charges in New Jersey, DWI appellate attorney Evan Levow can guide you through the court process and advocate for your rights. You can contact us today, online or at (877) 593-1717, to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our experienced and knowledgeable team.

More Blog Posts:

Understanding the Scope of Courts’ Authority in New Jersey DWI Appeals, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, October 22, 2017

Appellate Court Considers Whether Judges May Consider Acquitted Conduct as Evidence in New Jersey DWI Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 14, 2017

New Jersey Appellate Courts Are Limited in Their Ability to Review Factual Findings in DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, August 29, 2015

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