New Jersey Legal Defense: Key Steps in a Typical Garden State DWI Case

One of the more common questions that DWI defense attorneys get asked by potential clients is the particular order of events as an impaired driving case moves through our state’s law enforcement and judicial systems. Naturally, any DWI or DUI case begins with the driver being pulled over by a police officer for some other traffic offense, which could be as minor as a broken taillight. But that’s just the beginning of a long and potentially costly process.

Whether the violation occurs in Hudson, Mercer, Ocean or Monmouth County, the initial stage of a drunken driving case entails the suspect being stopped by a patrolman usually for a typical traffic violation, such as defective vehicle equipment, inability to maintain a lane (i.e. crossing over the lane markings besides that of changing lanes). To be a valid, this traffic stop should be for a legitimate violation in which the patrolman has “reasonable suspicion” that a motor vehicle violation has been committed.

Based on the New Jersey Supreme Court case, State v. Carpentieri, the officer or patrolman who pulls a motorist over must have an articulable and reasonable suspicion that a traffic law violation has occurred in order for subsequent DWI charges to be legally valid. But this is only the first qualification, as once a driver is pulled over the officer needs to have “probable cause” to believe the driver has been operating that vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or is otherwise impaired by an intoxicant, prescription medication, or other substance, such as marijuana.

Once the patrolman’s suspicion is realized, an arrest is usually conducted and the driver is typically taken to police headquarters for a breath test. For anyone taking notes to this point, please keep in mind that motorists do not have the right to advice from counsel at this stage of a drunken driving arrest, nor will any attorney, even one experienced in drunk driving defense, be of any help at this stage.

Once an individual is charged with DWI, drug DUI, or breath test refusal, a “complaint” is filed against that person, also known at this point as the defendant. Following the lodging of a complaint, the defendant will be arraigned, at which time he or she will be informed as to the various charges against him or her. The court will inform the defendant of his rights, per law, and then the court will ask the defendant to enter a plea of either guilty or not guilty.

If one chooses to engage a DWI lawyer to represent him or her, this initial appearance can usually be waived and the arraignment will typically be “adjourned” through the attorney drafting a letter of representation and sending that document to the court. In that letter, the attorney will advise the court that the defendant is being represented, that the defendant acknowledges being advised of his or her rights, and that he or she is entering a plea of “not guilty.”

Prior to going to trial, once a defendant has entered the not guilty plea, the “discovery process” is initiated in which the prosecutor’s office representing the state must turn over all evidence that was collected against the motorist to the person’s attorney. It is at this point that a qualified and experienced DWI lawyer can usually determine if any issues exist with the prosecution’s case, such as lack of reasonable suspicion for the initial traffic stop, no existence of probable cause for the stop or the arrest, mechanical problems or procedural mistakes in regard to the operation of the breathalyzer. An experienced attorney will also be able to decide, based on the prosecution’s evidence, whether or not an expert might be needed to testify during the trial.

At trial, assuming a plea agreement is not reached in the meantime, the trial will be held in the local court of the municipality in which the defendant was charged with drunken driving or drug DUI. Since there is no legal right to a jury trial in cases of DWI and DUI violations, the trial usually takes place in front of a municipal court judge who determines the defendant’s guilt or innocence. If the court finds the individual guilty, the judge will issue a sentence according to New Jersey’s guidelines for DWI/DUI offenses.