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New Jersey to Consider DWI Jury Trials

This week, the New Jersey Supreme Court announced that it would consider granting jury trials for third and subsequent DWI offenders. Certification was granted in the case of State v. JamesDenelsbeck (075170) in which the defendant is a fourth DWI offender. Many Lawyers have long requested that New Jersey’s highest court reconsider this issue, as the last time the State Supreme Court spoke on this issue was 1990 in a case called State v. Hamm, 121 N.J. 109 (1990).

image of jury trial

In Hamm, the court ruled that the New Jersey legislature purposefully limited DWI penalties for third and subsequent offenders so that the right to a jury trial would not attach. At that time the penalties consisted of a large fine, ten year loss of license and mandatory six months of imprisonment, as well as other minor penalties. However, 90 days of the mandatory jail could be converted to community service. In Hamm, the court stated that the “New Jersey Legislature has yet to take that step that would transform a D.W.I. offense into a constitutionally serious offense.” Id. at 115.

The right to a jury trial stems from the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and is primarily a federal right. Federal and State cases hold that the boundary of six months of possible imprisonment is not absolute; rather, the “severity of the authorized punishments” must be considered to determine if the offense is serious enough to trigger the right to a jury trial. See State v.Owens, 54 N.J. 153, 157 (1969); State v. Hamm, supra; Blanton v. North Las Vegas, 489 U.S. 538 (1989) and United States v. Nachtigal, 507 U.S. 1 (1993).

Since 1990, the New Jersey Legislature has increased the penalties for all DWI offenders on more than one occasion. In 1993, the legislature amended N.J.S. 39:4-50 to take away the community service option and to only allow 90 days of the mandatory jail to be served in an approved inpatient rehabilitation program. In 2010, the legislature added enhanced penalties of mandatory installation of ignition interlock devices for extended periods of time which amount to increased fines because the defendant pays for the device which is installed in a motor vehicle and requires the operator to blow into it to ensure sobriety. Other collateral consequences such as insurance surcharges and travel restrictions also enter the analysis.

Other groups interested in the issue, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, may ask the State Supreme Court to enter the case as “amicus curiae” or “friend of the court” to assist the court in deciding whether the increased penalties and consequences should trigger the right to a jury trial.

The attorney’s at the Hernandez Law Firm have long believed that person charged with DWI should be entitled to have their cases heard before a jury rather than the current bench trial requirement. Those charged with third offense DWI’s or greater should file jury trial requests to protect and preserve their rights in the event the New Jersey Supreme Court should agree with defense counsel.