While every drunk driving case in unique, the process in each case is largely the same. DWI cases in New Jersey are governed by the New Jersey Court Rules. As a result, there is a specific process for all DWI cases in New Jersey.
Arraignment: After an individual is arrested for DWI, he or she must be arraigned by a municipal court Judge. This is primarily a procedural formality and nothing substantive typically happens at an Arraignment. The Arraignment is an opportunity for the Judge to advise the defendant of his or her rights, responsibilities and the potential penalties associated with the DWI charge. The defendant also enters a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty” at this time. An application may also be made for the public defender, if the defendant is unable to afford private legal counsel. Finally, if a defendant is already represented by a lawyer prior to the Arraignment, the Court Rules permit that lawyer to waive the client’s appearance at the DWI Arraignment.
Discovery: After the Arraignment, the DWI attorney will request discovery from the municipal court prosecutor. The prosecutor represents the State of New Jersey in the DWI case against the defendant. The State is required to give the defendant’s DWI lawyer all relevant discovery. In essence, discovery means the evidence the State has against the defendant. Discovery includes police reports, narratives, witness statements, video recordings of the arrest and/or sobriety tests, audio recordings, scientific documents related to the breath-testing machine, photographs and any other evidence the State may use in the case. An experienced DWI attorney can review all of this discovery and begin to craft a strategy for legal defense of the DWI charges. Indeed, this is one of the most important phases of a DWI case.
Status Conferences: The court will schedule several regular status conferences throughout the DWI case. These conferences are an opportunity for the DWI lawyer to meet with the municipal prosecutor and discuss the case. Often the DWI attorney and prosecutor will address issues involving discovery. Sometimes the defense lawyer and prosecutor will meet with the Judge to talk about the case. Generally, DWI defendants are required to appear for all status conferences.
Motions: Sometimes it becomes necessary for a DWI lawyer to file motions in the municipal court. A Motion is a formal application to the Court and is the way an attorney seeks particular relief. Motions can be made on a wide variety of issues, including production of discovery, suppression of evidence, barring testimony and dismissal. As a general rule, Motions in municipal court are made orally.
Plea Bargaining: A municipal prosecutor is prohibited by the New Jersey Court Rules from plea bargaining a DWI charge. This means that prosecutors rarely dismiss a DWI charge unless they believe that the DWI charge cannot be won at trial. For a prosecutor to believe that a DWI charge cannot be won at trial, a DWI defense lawyer must convince the prosecutor that there are problems with the State’s case. This will often result in a dismissal of the charge or downgrade to a less serious offense.
If a DWI case cannot be resolved it will proceed to trial. DWI trials are conducted in the municipal court in which the DWI ticket was issued. A municipal court Judge will preside over the DWI trial. Defendants charged with drunk driving in New Jersey are not entitled to a trial by jury. During the trial, the State has the burden to prove all of the elements of the DWI charge against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. Evidence and witness testimony is introduced by the state and DWI defense lawyer. Upon completion of the trial, the municipal court Judge will decide if the State proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt and issue a verdict.
If a defendant is convicted of a DWI, he or she has a right to appeal. Appealing the conviction may reduce the sentence or may have the charge removed from the record altogether. An appeal is not a retrial. Rather, it is a reexamination of your case by a higher court to determine if your trial was conducted in a fair manner. Because DWI law is so complex, it is in a defendant’s best interest to hire an attorney who focuses exclusively on cases of this nature. Time is of the essence during an appeal. The law limits the time you can appeal a DWI conviction. In New Jersey, appeal from a DWI conviction is made to the New Jersey Superior Court. The DWI appeal is venued in the county in which the conviction occurred. If the defendant loses the DWI appeal in the New Jersey Superior Court, he or she can appeal to the New Jersey Appellate Division. If the defendant loses the DWI appeal in the New Jersey Appellate Division, he or she can appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which is the highest court in New Jersey. Below is a chart demonstrating the court hierarchy for DWI appeals:
|NJ Supreme Court|
|NJ Appellate Division|
|NJ Superior Court|