What must a prosecutor prove to get a DWI conviction in New Jersey?
Prosecutors must establish many things for you to be convicted of driving under the influence in New Jersey DWI law. These include a reasonable suspicion to stop or reasonable basis on which to encounter you, a reasonable basis on which to order you out of your vehicle, probable cause to arrest you, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt you were operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs beyond a reasonable doubt.
As a prerequisite to prosecution, the State must show that the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop you or otherwise encounter you. These are usually minor traffic or equipment violations, motor vehicle accidents, or responses to tips received by the police department.
Officers must also establish reasonable suspicion to get you out of the car. Officers usually do this by interviewing you at the scene, taking note of specific observations such as the odor of alcohol or marijuana, slurred speech, bloodshot watery eyes, and how your hands retrieve credentials.
Once reasonable suspicion is demonstrated, officers must establish probable cause to arrest you on suspicion of driving while under the influence. They will observe how you exit your car, how you stand, and how you walk. Officers will most likely have you perform these standardized field sobriety tests:
Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus. Officers instruct you to follow a stimulus (a finger, pen, or penlight) with your eyes. The officer is looking for involuntary jerking of the eyeball, which he or she will claim as indicative of some form of alcohol or drug impairment. Ironically, marijuana should not induce horizontal gaze nystagmus.
Walk and Turn. Officers instruct you to stand heel to toe while giving instructions to walk forward nine steps heel-to-toe with your hands at your sides while counting your steps out loud and looking at your feet, then turn around with short choppy steps and return nine steps the same way, all without raising your arms and stepping off a real or imaginary line. The officer will note certain clues about your performance, like stepping out of the heel-to-toe position, starting too soon, taking the wrong number of steps, stepping off the line, stopping to steady yourself, raising your arms, stepping off the line, and turning other than as instructed.
One Leg Stand. Officers instruct you to lift your leg six inches off the ground and count 1001, 1002, 1003, and so on until told to stop. This test lasts for 30 seconds. The officer notes clues about your performance like raising your arms, swaying, hopping, and putting your foot down.
If your behavior meets their decision point, whatever that may be, they will arrest you.
The State has the burden to establish reasonable suspicion and probable cause by a preponderance of the evidence–a relatively low burden of proof. These are preliminary questions, and judges tend to favor the State. This is why we advise clients that, in most cases, we will lose these pretrial challenges. Nonetheless, the hearings allow us to size up how the police officer testifies and nail the officer down on certain facts we can use to impeach him or her at trial. These challenges also give us greater control over the court’s calendar, since motions to suppress are normally held in completely separate proceedings, even though the testimony covers the same events.
At trial, the State’s burden becomes much higher. It must establish guilt by the highest burden of proof in the law–proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Defendants have no burden whatsoever to prove or disprove anything, although they may attempt to do so after the State presents its case.
At trial, to prove you’re under the influence, the State will usually rely on the same observations by which it established reasonable suspicion and probable cause. While the issues litigated before and during trial are fundamentally different from a legal perspective, the relevant facts are often the same. New Jersey law generally requires that these facts be litigated in pretrial hearings separately from the trial. But often the testimony will be sufficient for trial, and the parties are free to agree to incorporate pretrial testimony into the trial.
While balance tests and police observations are somewhat subjective, the Legislature views the breath and blood test results as objective proof of impairment. The results of your breath or blood tests can not only establish guilt, but, for first offenders, they also determine the level of punishment to which you will be subjected. If the breath or blood test is compromised, your chances of a favorable outcome increase.
With the guidance of a skilled attorney for DWI Law, you can have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that we’ll make it look easy. For more information on DWI Law in New Jersey, an initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you are seeking by calling (732) 218-9090 today.
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