NJ Supreme Court to Municipal Judges: Stop Combining Pretrial DWI Suppression Hearings with Full-on Trials

Last month the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the state’s Appellate Division that had overturned a drunken driving conviction of a New Jersey driver following arguments that the man’s trial mixed aspects of a pretrial hearing and that of the actual trial, which in the Court’s view should ideally come later as a separate proceeding.

The initial drunken driving case involved the defendant, Bruno Gibson, who was arrested by a Winslow Twp. patrolman during the early morning hours of November 17, 2007. According to the review article, Mr. Gibson admitted to police that he had been drinking, after which he reportedly attempted and failed several field sobriety tests. As the patrolmen were attempting to take the man into custody, he apparently resisted arrest.

Later pleading guilty in Superior Court to an assault charge, the defendant was sentenced to two years’ probation. The charges of driving while intoxicated and reckless driving were adjudicated in a Winslow Twp. courtroom. According to court records, during the suppression hearing — not the actual trial — there was reportedly a dispute over how the arresting officer had determined that the defendant had failed the standardized field sobriety test that was administered that morning.

According to news articles, the prosecutor in the case conceding that there were issues pertaining to the chain-of-custody of the defendant’s blood sample. The prosecutor then offered to have the arresting officer, who had already testified during the suppression hearing, testify a second time. Unfortunately for the defendant, the judge denied the defense’s motion for a dismissal (on the grounds that the state no longer had evidence to present), then allowed the officer to testify.

As a result, the municipal judge, having heard arguments from both sides during the suppression hearing, skipped the trial stage altogether and found the defendant guilty of drunken driving. In a de novo review, a Superior Court judge found that the procedure represented by the suppression hearing was, in actuality, faulty yet determined that even in doing so the court did not exhibit any prejudice toward the defendant.

On appeal, the Appellate Division ordered an acquittal; however, the Supreme Court said the matter should be handed back to the lower courts for purposes of a proper trial. Experts have suggested that this ruling may force some significant changes in how New Jersey municipal court judges, as well as the attorneys who argue before the court, handle similar drunken driving cases.

In making its ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court essentially warned the municipal courts about the inherent dangers of combining pretrial hearings with the actual trials, at least as pertains to drunken driving cases. The court pointed out in its decision that only under the rarest of circumstances should a judge decide the guilt or innocence of a DWI defendant solely on testimony arising from a motion to suppress.

The Court’s ruling was unanimous, with the justices stating that the most equitable way to handle DWI-DUI cases would be to have two separate proceedings. By doing so, if the suppression hearing fails, then a standard trial would take place sometime later. As the Appellate Division stated in its earlier ruling in State v. Gibson, “Due to the fundamental differences between the purposes of a suppression hearing and a trial on the merits of the charges, the evidence from the pretrial hearing cannot be used in a subsequent trial on the merits, without a stipulation from both parties.”

Court Urges Separation of DWI Suppression Hearings, Trials; NJLawJournal.com; September 16, 2014