Arrested for DWI? It’s Important to Understand the Legal Process for a New Jersey DUI

As experienced trial lawyers concentrating on DWI defense cases, my dedicated legal team has defended literally hundreds of individuals over the years who have been accused of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, doctor-prescribed medications, and even illegal substances, such as meth, cocaine, and pot. Many of our clients began their legal fight following a relatively basic traffic stop, which often is the situation in many drunken driving cases.

As long-time drunken driving attorneys, we know that being pulled over by a highway patrolman or local cop can happen for any number of reasons; some as seemingly insignificant as a burned-out license plate lamp or cracked windshield. However, even these relatively innocuous infractions can actually result in the motorists being issued a summons for drinking and driving; many times, an arrest will occur and the driver’s vehicle may be impounded.

It really makes no difference where in the Garden State one resides, works or goes to school; DWI and drug DUI police arrests happen all over the state, in such places as Atlantic, Bergen and Monmouth counties, or Newark, Princeton and Atlantic City. As a driver operating on the highways, interstates and surface streets of New Jersey, there is always a possibility that you or someone you know will be stopped by a law enforcement officer for one of dozens of comparatively minor traffic offenses.

As we mentioned, a very large percentage of DWI-DUI arrests begin with what is generally a routine traffic stop. If the driver has consumed alcohol or taken some kind of intoxicating substance, then there may be a very good chance that the officer will make an arrest based if the driver exhibits any signs of drunkenness or impairment by some kind of a drug. However, many people don’t realize that for a DWI-DUI arrest to be legal, it must have been preceded by what the law refers to as “reasonable suspicion,” under which the officer believes that the motorist has committed a traffic violation.

This requirement is based on case law (New Jersey v. Carpentieri), in which the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a law enforcement officer must have an “articulable and reasonable suspicion” that the motorist has committed a violation of New Jersey traffic law before the patrolman can even consider pulling the suspect’s vehicle over. Furthermore, after the initial roadside stop, by law the policeman must have probable cause before making an arrest, as well as before requesting that the motorist submit to breath test.

Under New Jersey law, the term “probable cause” means that the officer must have “cause” to believe that the driver is operating his car, truck or motorcycle while intoxicated by alcohol or some other substance that may have resulted in the motorist’s impairment behind the wheel. It is important to remember that at no time during this early stage of a DWI or drug DUI arrest does the motorist have the right to advice from legal counsel. The benefit of an experienced drunken driving attorney will only be helpful at a later point in time.

Once an arrest is made for DWI, drug DUI, or breath test refusal, among others, an arraignment before a judge is the next step in the legal process. As part of the arraignment, the motorist will receive a “complaint” where the court informs him or her of the charges. During the arraignment, defendants are also advised of their rights under state law, following which they may enter a guilty or not guilty plea.

When a person hires a DWI defense lawyer to act as his or her representative, the initial arraignment hearing can usually be waived; this can usually be accomplished though a letter of representation presented by the defendant’s attorney to the court. In this letter, the DWI-DUI defense lawyer advises the court that his client has representation and has been advised of his rights; a plea of “not guilty” is also entered via this letter of representation.

A third step in the legal process associated with a drunken driving charge is known as “discovery,” which involves the prosecutor’s office handling the case for the State turning over any and all evidence in its possession that pertains to the defendant and his DWI case. At this point in the process, the defendant’s attorney should be able to determine if there are any “intervening issues.” Issues that may make a difference in the defendant’s case can include a possible lack of reasonable suspicion for the initial traffic stop, no true probable cause for the DWI-DUI arrest, or if there were any problems when the police operated the breath testing device (as well as any malfunctions of the device itself).

It is very important to obtain all documents relating to the defendant’s DWI charge, which may indicate the need for the defense to find an expert witness to testify during the trial. Drunken driving trials usually take place in the courthouse of the municipality where the offense occurred. As such, the prosecution and the defense present their arguments before a municipal court judge — not a jury — who alone will determines the guilt or innocence of the accused motorist. If guilty, the judge will decide what penalties will be levied against the defendant, based on sentencing guidelines outlined by the New Jersey DWI-DUI statutes.