NJ DWI Defense Update: New Jersey Drunk Driving Arrests Have Many Steps Before Possible Conviction

Whether you live in Red Bank or Newark, Atlantic City or Trenton, as a New Jersey motorist you always have the potential to be stopped for one of dozens of traffic violations by a the state police or of any of the hundreds of county and municipal law enforcement officers across the Garden State. In fact, every drunken driving or drug DUI conviction begins with an arrest, usually arising out of a routine traffic stop.

Most drivers should understand that for a DWI traffic stop to be valid it must be backed up by what state law defines as “reasonable suspicion” that the driver of a car, truck or other motor vehicle has actually committed a traffic violation. As New Jersey drunk driving defense attorneys, I and my staff of experienced DWI defense lawyers make it our job to assist individuals accused of DWI (also known as driving while intoxicated), prescription drug DUI, or even marijuana possession in a vehicle.

Initial Traffic Stop
In State v. Carpentieri, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a patrolman must have an “articulable and reasonable suspicion” that a traffic law violation has been committed before he can even consider effecting a drunken driving traffic stop. Additionally, once a driver has been pulled over, state law says that the police officer must have probable cause before he can make an arrest and subsequently conduct a breathalyzer test. When we say probable cause, it means cause to believe that the motorist is in fact operating his or her vehicle in an intoxicated condition.

Please keep in mind that at no time during this early stage of a DWI arrest does a driver have the right to advice from counsel. Even an experienced DWI lawyer will be of absolutely no help at that particular point in time.

The second step following a DWI or DUI arrest, which can also include breath test refusal, is the arraignment of the subject. As part of this step, the motorist receives a Complaint. The defendant makes his initial appearance at arraignment where the court informs him of the charges. Simultaneously, the defendant is also told of his rights under New Jersey state law, after which he will enter a plea of guilty or not guilty.

Should a person hire a DWI defense attorney to represent him or her, this initial appearance can typically be waived. The arraignment can be “adjourned” by the attorney simply sending a letter of representation to the Court advising it that his client is being represented and has been advised of his or her rights, and that the defendant is entering a plea of “Not Guilty.”

As a third step in the process, discovery includes the State turning over all evidence that it has accumulated against the accused. At this stage, the defense lawyer should be able to decide if there are any intervening issues, such as a lack of reasonable suspicion for the initial traffic stop, no real probable cause, any problems with the operation of the breathalyzer or malfunctions of the device itself, etc. It is critical to acquire all documents relating to the drunken driving charge in order to decide if an expert witness should be called in to testify during the trial.

After the discovery phase, if a plea agreement is not reached, then a trial is set in the courthouse of the municipality in which the accused motorist was charged. The trial usually transpires in front of a municipal court judge who alone determines the guilt or innocence of the defendant. (While many people are surprised the first time they hear it, a drunk driving defendant does not have the right to a trial by jury.) If the court finds the defendant guilty, he or she will be sentenced by the judge according to New Jersey’s guidelines for DWI and DUI offenses.

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