Bergen County Drunken Driving Defense Update: Legal Process of a New Jersey DWI Case

Being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, prescription medication (drug DUI) or an illicit drug/controlled dangerous substance (CDS), such as marijuana, cocaine or heroine, is just the beginning of a journey that will take a defendant from drunken or impaired driving charges all the way through to a possible conviction and sentencing (including fines and other penalties).

As New Jersey drunk driving defense lawyers, I and my staff of experienced DWI attorneys understand very well the laws that pertain to driving while intoxicated her in the Garden State. Whether one is stopped in Monmouth, Atlantic, Passaic or Middlesex County, the process and procedures for a DWI or DUI case are more or less the same. Following the arrest and pressing of charges, it should be obvious that most individuals will want to talk to a qualified legal expert in this area of the law.

While the local procedures and customs vary from municipality to municipality, the overall process covered here is generally what any driver accused of DWI, DUI, breath test refusal or other drunken driving-related charges can expect to go through. Naturally, if you are currently charged with drunken driving and have a court appearance set for the future, it is advisable to consult with an experienced attorney to better understand your rights up front.

Following an arrest for driving under the influence of beer, wine or hard liquor, a New Jersey motorist can expect to be arraigned. An arraignment proceeding is typically the defendant’s first court appearance before the court to hear the charges against him or her. If the defendant has secured counsel before the arraignment date, usually the appearance can be waived pending a pre-trail conference. If the defendant is going it alone, then an appearance before a judge — for his or her arraignment — is mandatory.

During the arraignment, a defendant will be read the formal charges against him by the judge, after which he must enter a plea of either guilty or not guilty. It goes without saying that most people charged with DWI or drug DUI will enter a plea of not guilty, in which case a pretrial hearing or pretrial conference will be scheduled (usually within 30 days) as the next step. If a guilty plea is entered, then the court will usually determine a sentence then and there.

In the case of a pretrial conference, here in New Jersey the defendant and his lawyer will have the chance to discuss the particulars of the DWI case with the presiding judge, the arresting officer and the municipal prosecutor in an attempt to resolve the issue without going through a full-blown trial.

Any “discovery’ materials, such as police reports or breathalyzer results and device maintenance records should be obtained by the drunk driving defense attorney prior to the day of the pretrial conference. If there are obvious problems with the prosecution’s case, this is the time to voice any objections or point out a lack of evidence on the prosecution’s part.

It’s important to note that, by law, New Jersey prosecutors are prohibited from offering any type of plea agreement to individuals accused of driving while intoxicated. For this reason alone, the best course of action is to follow the advice of one’s attorney.

If a case is scheduled to be heard, the defendant’s lawyer will likely file any motions that pertain to issues that must be resolved before a trial can actually go forward. One of the most common types of motion, at least in the case of a DWI arrest, is that of suppressing evidence. Such evidence can include blood-alcohol content (BAC) breath or blood test results or statements, as well as other evidence collected by the arresting officer during the DWI stop.

Once a motion to suppress is filed, a hearing will then take place. The defense or the prosecution may introduce testimony from expert witnesses, after which that witness may be cross-examined by the defendant’s or the state’s attorney. Witnesses usually include the police officers involved in the arrest. If the original motion to suppress is granted by the court, the evidence relating to that motion will no longer be admissible for purposes of the trial.

Another key point for drunk driving cases in New Jersey is that defendants do not granted the right to a trial by jury, except in cases of felony-related DWIs (such cases include those of vehicular homicide and other more serious offenses). Therefore, most DWI or drug DUI trials take place before a municipal court judge — also known as a “bench trial”.

New Jersey law includes guidelines for drunken driving cases, which include the requirement that the case or the trial must be effectively resolved within 60 days of the initial drunken driving arrest. (Of course, for complicated cases — or those involving contested DWI arrests — the likelihood of a 60-day resolution is rather low).

Under normal circumstances, the judge acts both as judge and jury in determining issues of law as well as issues of fact. Should the court enter a guilty verdict, sentencing will be in accordance with the guidelines for New Jersey DWI penalties. If a “not guilty” verdict is entered, the charges and the case will be dismissed.

After a guilty verdict rendered, the defendant and his or her attorney has 20 days to appeal the decision to a higher court. Any appeal will likely be heard by a superior judge, who typically reviews the trial transcripts and evidence presented during the trial in the lower court. If the guilty verdict is sustained, then the defendant has another opportunity to appeal, this time with the New Jersey Appellate Division, in which the appeal is heard by a multiple-judge panel.