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Articles Posted in Motor Vehicle Offenses

The most onerous part of the sentence in most, if not all, DWI cases is the license suspension.  The suspension can range from seven months for a first offense to 10 years for a third offense.  Because so much of New Jersey life revolves around the ability to drive, virtually every DWI client focuses first and foremost on the loss of their driving privileges.  Many DWI defendants choose to appeal their conviction and sentence, and trial counsel can ask the sentencing court to stay the sentence, including the license suspension, pending appeal.  In State v. Robertson, decided March 8, 2017, our Supreme Court addressed the standard for a stay pending appeal at two stages.  The first is a stay pending appeal from the municipal court to the Law Division of the Superior Court for a trial de novo.  The second is a stay pending appeal from a trial de novo in the Superior Court, Law Division, to the Appellate Division.

Robertson had a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of .13.  He was convicted of a first offense DWI and, as part of his sentence, his license was suspended for seven months.  The municipal court stayed the license suspension for 20 days to allow Robertson time to commence an appeal.  After the trial de novo in the Law Division, the court found the defendant guilty and imposed the same sentence.  Defense counsel sought to continue the stay of the license suspension pending further appeal, but the State opposed the request.  The Law Division judge granted the application, providing the defendant filed his appeal with 10 days.

On further appeal, the Appellate Division observed that both of the lower courts stayed the license suspension pending appeal “without providing any statement of reasons.”  The Court sought guidance for the standard for a stay in a DWI case in existing case law, stating that if a stay is granted, driving may be limited to such activities as employment, or conditioned upon the installation of an ignition interlock device among restrictions.  The Supreme Court granted defendant’s petition for certification so as to address an issue of significant public importance concerning the standards for a stay of sentence in a DWI case. Continue reading

DWI cases can be difficult and challenging under the best of circumstances.  Careful discovery review and analysis is crucial to any positive outcome. First, the defense attorney needs to have a thorough understanding of the standard battery of field tests that police employ in assessing drivers suspected of operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.  These tests include the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test, the Walk-and-Turn test, and the One-Leg-Stand test.  Each of these tests must be administered properly, and the steps the arresting officer is supposed to follow, including the instructions given and the subject’s performance, should be clearly outlined in the discovery that the State provides in connection with the case.

Further, cases involving alcohol typically involve a breathalyzer test.  Here again, an officer certified to administer the test must do so following a relatively long and complex list of testing protocols.  The machine and chemicals used in performing the test must also pass muster, and the related documentation must be provided to defense counsel.

This brief description of the steps the State must follow in convicting someone for DWI shows that the goal is to document the basis for the offense as thoroughly as possible so as to raise the likelihood of a conviction to the point where it can be a foregone conclusion.  Defense counsel must therefore work diligently to understand the paperwork that the State provides in support of its case, and make appropriate motions and retain required experts where necessary. Continue reading

Generally speaking, a motor vehicle is not protected from unreasonable searches and seizures to the same extent as a home.  Our State’s Supreme Court has further reduced that level of protection.

William Witt was pulled over on Route 48 in Carneys Point in Salem County in December 2012.  Witt’s high beams were activated, and he failed to dim them as he passed a nearby police officer.  The officer spoke with Witt, determined that he was intoxicated, performed field sobriety tests, and arrested him.  The officer searched the car for an open alcohol container and located a handgun in the center console.  Witt moved to suppress the gun, arguing that the search and seizure were unreasonable.  This argument was based on the 2009 Supreme Court decision, State v. Pena-Flores, which required the police to have both probable cause and exigent circumstances before conducting a warrantless search of an automobile.  The search of Witt’s vehicle was unconstitutional because there were no exigent circumstances preventing the police from first obtaining a warrant.

In the September 2015 decision of State v. Witt, the NJ Supreme Court overturned Pena-Flores and retreated to the standard set in the 1981 decision of State v. Alston.  The earlier standard allowed police to search a vehicle without a warrant when they had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained evidence of a crime, and where the probable cause stemmed from circumstances that were unforeseeable and spontaneous. Continue reading

Any New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney who practices regularly in our State’s Municipal Courts handles clients accused of DWI (Driving While Intoxicated/Driving Under The Influence).  While DWI clients charged with a second or third offense frequently decide to proceed to trial because of the stakes involved, the first offense cases – which account for the majority of DWI matters – frequently end with guilty pleas, and the attorney’s function is simply to make sure that only the mandatory minimums penalties are imposed.

I recently had a first-offense DWI that was far from the norm.  First, the case did not involve alcohol.  My client was taking prescribed medication, had a bad reaction to it while driving, and was pulled over, tested and charged.  The breathalyzer reading was zero.  Her charge was based on officer observations and her failure to pass the field sobriety tests.  Because the case involved drugs as opposed to alcohol, the State relied heavily on a “Drug Recognition Expert”.  Simply put, this is an officer who has been trained to determine whether someone is drug-impaired based on their observations of the subject’s behavior and mannerisms.  The Drug Recognition Expert prepared an expert report that was included in the discovery.  The case involved State troopers, as opposed to local police officers.  (For those of you who are wondering, my client’s doctor specifically told her that the medication would have no effect on her ability to drive.)

The discovery read the way DWI discovery typically reads, and included all of the sentences and phrases that attorneys doing this work can eventually recite verbatim.  But this turned out to be the root of the State’s problem in this case.  For purposes of this article, my client’s name was Mr. Jones.  The narrative prepared by the arresting Trooper in my client’s case referred to Mr. Smith, as well as my client.  The Drug Recognition Expert’s report referred to Mrs. White, as well as my client.  It became clear after reviewing the discovery that the officers who worked on this case and prepared the paperwork simply did a “cut and paste” from reports prepared in other cases, but failed to proofread their work and change all of the names so that the documentation referred only to my client.  Using these errors, I was able to negotiate a plea to a reduced charge which carried a must shorter suspension and sharply reduced fines and penalties. Continue reading

Every New Jersey resident knows about the importance that driving plays in everyday life in the State.  Free and easy access to a car is a prerequisite to many daily activities.  At the same time, motor vehicle infractions are a common occurrence in the State.  Most New Jersey drivers will receive a motor vehicle summons for a moving violation, and be required to appear in a New Jersey Municipal Court, at some point during their driving career.  Careless driving is one of the most common moving violations in New Jersey.  A conviction for this offense will, at a minimum, result in a charge of two points against a license, as well as the imposition of fines.  Depending upon the facts and circumstances of the case, a Municipal Court judge can also impose a license suspension and jail time in a careless driving case.  In the recent decision of State v. Palma, decided September 30, 2014, the Court outlined the factors that municipal judges are supposed to use in sentencing a driver convicted of careless driving.  In light of the frequency with which careless driving summonses are issued, every New Jersey driver should have some familiarity with these factors.

First, the Court found that careless driving is a motor vehicle, as opposed to a criminal, offense.  Accordingly, sentencing factors outlined in the State’s Criminal Code and/or used in criminal cases cannot appropriately be adapted to careless driving cases.  Thus, the Court held that careless driving sentences should be guided by factors used in motor vehicle cases, and/or those outlined in the State’s Motor Vehicle Code.

As to the specific factors to be used in careless driving cases, particularly those in which the Municipal Court judge is contemplating a license suspension or custodial term, the Court recalled the case of State v. Moran, a reckless driving case.  Although reckless driving is a different offense, the Court found that the sentencing factors outlined in Moran could be used to channel the wide sentencing discretion that Municipal Court judges have in careless driving cases. Continue reading