Appellate Court: DWI Not a Crime under NJ Law Despite Jail Time for Certain Convictions

If you feel that jail time for a drunken driving conviction merits DWI being categorized as a crime, and therefore a jury trial, you’re not alone. However, as stiff as sentences can be for driving under the influence, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, believes otherwise. A recent decision made that abundantly clear when Steven G. McLaughlin filed an appeal for a DWI conviction he received because his case was not heard by a jury.

As a New Jersey DWI defense attorney, I have heard defendants say they wanted a jury trial. This may not seem so odd, as many people believe that if jail time can be attached to a drunken driving conviction, then they deserve to have their case heard by a jury of their peers. Unfortunately, this latest ruling by the New Jersey Superior Court will probably put juried trials on hold for motorists accused of driving under the influence of alcohol.

According to court records, in October 2008, Stephen McLaughlin was denied his motion for a jury trial on his third charge of driving while intoxicated by the Law Division. This motion followed a trial in Brick Township back in September 2005 when McLaughlin was convicted of DWI, reckless driving, and speeding.

Upon appeal the man was again found guilty of all three offenses and was sentenced to 90 days in jail and 90 days of in-patient alcohol treatment for the drunk driving offense. This included a concurrent sentence of 30 days for the reckless driving charge. The court also ordered the man’s license to be suspended for 10 years, as well as being assessed related fines and court costs.

Following a third appeal and conviction, McLaughlin applied to the Law Division for a jury trial on his drunk driving offense. The trial judge in that particular appeal denied the defendant’s motion and ordering the immediate execution of the sentence previously imposed.

In the Superior Court’s decision, it stated that it rejected McLaughlin’s motion for exercise of their [sic] rights to indictment by a Grand Jury and trial by jury. While the defendant indicated he faced serious “quasi-criminal and civil consequences” as a direct result of the municipal court proceedings, the fact remains that defendant faces these stated consequences as a direct result of driving while under the influence for a third time and charged accordingly.

The Court added that it agreed with the State upon its contention that “a defendant charged with DWI is not entitled to a criminal . . . trial by jury.” Also, the Court said that drunk driving is not a criminal offense within the meaning of the New Jersey Constitution.

Even though Mr. McLaughlin argued that he served time in jail as well as the fact that he has years left to serve on the suspension of his driving privileges, the Court noted that none of those consequences would trigger the right to a jury trial.

Referring to State v. Hamm, the Court added that the mere use of words such as “detainment,” “convicted” and “imprisonment” in N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 does not elevate DWI to a “crime” within the intendment of N.J.S.A. 2C:1-4(a)[ 1 ], as defendant contends. In short, “New Jersey has never recognized a right to trial by jury for the motor-vehicle offense of DWI. It is simply not a crime under New Jersey law.”