NJ Drunk Driving Update: Before a DWI Conviction, Prosecutors Must Prove Guilt — Part 1

As stated previously in this forum, drunken driving is a serious offense with severe penalties for those convicted of DWI, breath test refusal or driving under the influence of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS); however, no conviction and no sentencing for driving while intoxicated can even take place until the prosecution has proven to the court that a driver was responsible for operating a motor vehicle while drunk on alcohol, or otherwise impaired by prescription medications or illicit drugs (also known as drug DUI).

In the Garden State, drivers who have never been arrested for driving while under the influence of alcohol might not know all the finer point of the law. As New Jersey DWI defense lawyers, I and my colleagues not only understand state law as it pertains to drunk drivers, but we also have a detailed understanding of the circumstances in which individuals find themselves facing a charge of DWI or breath test refusal.

Of course, it goes without saying that an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can lead to harsh monetary penalties and even license suspension. (As an aside, most people might not even consider the implications of losing their driver’s license, and essentially their driving privileges for even several months, but this alone can be devastating to someone who drives to work, or more seriously, drives for a living.)

Naturally, until one has actually been through our legal system on a charge of drunken driving, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect. All the more reason to consult with an experienced DWI defense lawyer ahead of time, and certainly before stepping through the doors of a municipal or county courtroom.

Anyone who has ever watched a legal drama in the theater or has sat through a television police drama at home will understand that without proof or evidence to back up their case against a defendant, the prosecution has at best an uphill battle in trying to get a DWI-related conviction. This isn’t to say that municipal prosecutors and other attorneys for the State don’t attempt to pursue a conviction in the absence of hard evidence, such as breathalyzer test data, but there job becomes much harder without it.

Sitting down with a DWI defense attorney can help a defendant to become more familiar with the procedures of a drunken driving case as well as the potential penalties and sentencing following a drunk driving conviction. At the very least, a New Jersey drunk driving lawyer will explain to the accused that several things must be proven before the court can render a guilty verdict.

Proving Operation of a Motor Vehicle
For starters, the State must prove that the defendant was actually operating a motor vehicle at the time of the arrest. Although this may seem ridiculously obvious, it nonetheless must be part of the prosecution’s case. Now, the required elements proving a violation of New Jersey’s DWI statute includes A) proof of operation; and B) existence of a motor vehicle.

When looking at the “operation” aspect of the law, this is typically established through actual observations, usually by a police officer, or through circumstantial evidence, either of which can demonstrate operation of a vehicle by the defendant. Please note that it is not essential for the State to prove actual “physical movement” of the car or truck; they must simply establish that it was the defendant’s “intention” to operate the vehicle AND that said vehicle was capable of moving.

By establishing intent, the State typically tries to present evidence such as the existence of an ignition key that the defendant had placed into the ignition switch, or simply that the vehicle’s engine was switched on and running. As simple as this kind of proof may seem, it is actually a much more complicated issue; if at all possible, an experienced DWI defense will likely attempt to defend a client on this particular issue should a viable defense actually reveal itself.

We will cover more regarding proof of intoxication in a future entry. Suffice it to say for now that securing legal representation can often be a wise step prior to appearing in court, depending on the strength of the State’s evidence and the history of the defendant’s prior DWI-related traffic offenses.