NJ Drunk Driving Defense News: Despite Potential Jail Time, DWI Not a Crime Meriting Jury Trial

If you feel that because jail time can be attached to certain drunken driving convictions that it makes sense for drunk driving offenses to be categorized as crimes requiring a trial by jury, well, you’re probably not alone. However, as stiff as drug DUI or DWI sentence can be in cases of driving under the influence of alcohol or prescription drugs, the Superior Court of New Jersey apparently believes the right to a jury trial is not usually called for, or so it would seem based on a recent decision by the high court.

The recent decision in New Jersey v. McLaughlin by the state’s Supreme Court Appellate Division made this abundantly clear when Steven G. McLaughlin filed an appeal a DWI conviction he received after he was denied a jury trial five years back in Ocean County, NJ.

According to court records, Mr. McLaughlin was pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving in 2005 year when he was stopped for speeding in Brick Township, NJ. As a result of that drunken driving police stop, McLaughlin was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated. His case went to court on September 21, 2005, which resulted in a conviction for DWI, speeding and reckless driving.

On appeal McLaughlin was again found guilty on all three counts and sentenced to 90 days in jail, plus another 90 days of in-patient treatment as a result of the DWI offense. There was also a 30-day concurrent sentence for his reckless driving conviction. The man’s driver’s license was suspended for 10 years and the court levied related fines and court costs against him. Prior his next appeal, McLaughlin’s sentence and all penalties, except his revoked license, were suspended pending that court’s decision.

On review of the case, the defendant’s convictions were upheld in an unreported decision on June 13, 2007. It was at this point that McLaughlin applied to the Law Division for a jury trial on his DWI offense. Following oral arguments on October 10, 2008, the presiding judge denied the defendant’s motion and ordering the immediate execution of the DWI and other sentences previously imposed.

The judge in the 2008 decision concluded that although the defendant indicated he faced serious quasi-criminal and civil consequences as a direct result of his original court hearing the law states that a defendant charged with DWI is not entitled to a criminal trial by jury. In short, drunk driving is not a criminal offense within the meaning of the New Jersey Constitution.

Taking his case to the New Jersey Supreme Court, Appellate Division last year, McLaughlin’s appeal was unfortunately denied. The court responded saying that none of the penalties for McLaughlin’s drunk driving conviction (specifically his jail time of less than six months) would trigger his right to a jury trial.

In rendering its decision, the court cited State v. Hamm, 121 N.J. 109 (1990), which states, “The mere use of words such as “detainment,” “convicted” and “imprisonment” in N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 does not elevate DWI to a “crime” within the intendment of N.J.S.A. 2C:1-4(a)[ 1 ]… In short, New Jersey has never recognized a right to trial by jury for the motor-vehicle offense of DWI. It is simply not a crime under New Jersey law.”

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