New Jersey Drunk Driving Arrests Follow Multiple Steps before a Final, Possible DWI Conviction

It doesn’t matter where you live in the Garden State — Atlantic, Bergen, Monmouth, Passaic or even Ocean County — as a motorist there is always that possibility that you will be pulled over by the New Jersey State Police or a local patrolman for one of dozens of relatively minor traffic offenses. But an interesting fact is that nearly every DWI arrest begins with a routine traffic stop.

As a drunken driving defense lawyer, I and my colleagues have defended literally hundreds of individuals charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, prescription meds or even illicit drugs such as marijuana or cocaine. Being stopped for something as seemingly minor as a burned-out taillight can actually result in some motorists receiving a summons for drinking and driving.

Some people may not realize that for an arrest for drunken driving to be legal it must have been preceded by what state law defines as “reasonable suspicion.” In this case, the suspicion would be that the driver of vehicle has committed a traffic violation.

This requirement is based on a case known as New Jersey v. Carpentieri, in which the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a police officer needs to have an “articulable and reasonable suspicion” that the driver of a vehicle has committed a violation of New Jersey traffic law before that officer can even consider pulling the suspect’s car or truck over.

Following the initial stop for the traffic offense, the patrolman must by law have probable cause prior to making any arrest and before having the driver submit to breathalyzer test. By probable cause the law states that the officer must have cause to believe that the motorist is operating his car or truck while under the influence of alcohol or other substance that may have caused impairment.

Please keep in mind that at no time during this early stage of a DWI arrest does a driver have the right to advice from counsel. Even an experienced DWI lawyer will be of absolutely no help at that particular point in time.

Following the arrest for DWI, drug DUI, or even breath test refusal, comes the arraignment of the subject. In this step, the motorist receives a “complaint.” The defendant makes his initial appearance at arraignment where the court informs him of the charges. Simultaneously, the defendant is also told of his rights under New Jersey state law, after which he will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.

Should a person hire a DWI defense attorney to represent him or her, this initial appearance can typically be waived. The arraignment can be “adjourned” by the attorney simply sending a letter of representation to the Court advising it that his client is being represented and has been advised of his or her rights, and that the defendant is entering a plea of “Not Guilty.”

As a third step in the process, discovery includes the State turning over all evidence that it has accumulated against the accused. At this stage, the defense lawyer should be able to decide if there are any intervening issues, such as a lack of reasonable suspicion for the initial traffic stop, no real probable cause, any problems with the operation of the breathalyzer or malfunctions of the device itself, etc. It is critical to acquire all documents relating to the drunken driving charge in order to decide if an expert witness should be called in to testify during the trial.

After the discovery phase, if a plea agreement is not reached, then a trial is set in the courthouse of the municipality in which the accused motorist was charged. The trial usually transpires in front of a municipal court judge who alone determines the guilt or innocence of the defendant. (While many people are surprised the first time they hear it, a drunk driving defendant does not have the right to a trial by jury.) If the court finds the defendant guilty, he or she will be sentenced by the judge according to New Jersey’s guidelines for DWI and DUI offenses.