Defendants Facing DWI Charges Are Not Entitled to Trial by Jury

Woman being pulled over by police

If you are charged with a crime, do you always have the right to a trial by jury? When it comes to drunk driving cases in New Jersey, the answer is “no.” On May 12, 2016, the New Jersey Supreme Court found in State v. Denelsbeck that defendants facing their third or subsequent drunk driving conviction are not entitled to a jury trial, and are subject to a mandatory six months in jail.

The reason is because New Jersey does not consider DWI a “crime.” Instead, the law treats it as a traffic violation, meaning that the punishments are not serious enough. Courts in New Jersey have long found that defendants are not entitled to a trial by jury on “petty” offenses but are only entitled to them when consequences are more severe.

How “Serious” are the Consequences?

In reaching its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the punishments for repeat DWI offenders are not “sufficiently serious” to trigger the constitutional right to a jury trial. However, the Court admitted that the law does require a lot of fines, fees, and penalties, including mandatory jail time, for repeat DUI offenders, and the amount of punishment has increased over time.

Specifically, under the current laws, if you have already been convicted of two prior DWI’s and you are charged with drunk driving again, you face up to 180 days of jail time, thousands of dollars in fines, forced enrollment in an alcohol inpatient rehabilitation program, and a ten-year loss of your driver’s license.

If convicted, you would also be required to install an ignition interlock device on your vehicle during the period of suspension and AFTER you get your license back. After your driving privileges are returned, the device must remain on the vehicle for six months to one year on a first offense or one to three years on a subsequent offence. An ignition interlock device works with your vehicle’s ignition system, requiring you to provide a breath sample before your car will start. If alcohol is detected, your vehicle will not start until a passing sample has been provided. If you are convicted for drunk driving even once, you could be required to install an ignition interlock on your vehicle at your own expense – and costs for an ignition interlock device are estimated at $90-150 to install and about $70-90 per month for monitoring and calibration./p>

However, the Supreme Court Warns Punishment Cannot Be Any Harsher

In deciding Denelsbeck, the Supreme Court warned that if any additional DUI penalties are added by the state legislature, the Supreme Court would change its mind and decide that defendants charged with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol would have the right to have their cases heard by a jury of their peers. The Court said our New Jersey lawmakers have “reached the outer limit in subjecting third and subsequent DWI offenders to confinement without a jury trial.” They noted that facing a mandatory term of six months’ confinement for a third or subsequent drunk driving conviction is the constitutional maximum – meaning 180 days of jail time is the maximum punishment allowed before a defendant has the legal right to a jury trial. The Court specifically stated that the offense is currently teetering between being a petty offense and a serious crime because of this punishment.

Jury Trials, and the Alternative – Bench Trials

The Denelsbeck case was decided 5-1. Justice Barry Albin disagreed with the rest of the Supreme Court and wrote in his dissent that New Jersey is “far out of the mainstream” as to its position on Trial by Jury in DUI cases. He pointed out that 40 states give DWI defendants a jury trial on their first offense. The New Jersey State Bar Association and the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union helped to argue that New Jersey should join the other 40 states in trying DWI cases in front of juries, while County prosecutors and the state Attorney General’s Office argued that universal jury trials for DUI offenders would overburden the court system.

In the meantime, because jury trials are not a right, if you are charged with drunk driving, you may be required to present your case in what is called a bench trial. In a bench trial, your entire case is heard and decided by a judge without the help of a jury. Having an attorney to represent you in a bench trial is especially important, because the judge will get to decide both issues of law and evidence as well as make the ultimate decision in the case regarding whether you are guilty or innocent.

New Jersey DWI/ DUI Lawyer Edward M. Janzekovich Will Fight for Your Rights if You Are Charged

Defending against a DUI charge is complicated. If you are charged with drunk driving or driving under the influence in New Jersey, knowing what your rights are can make all the difference. To speak with an experienced New Jersey DWI lawyer about your situation, call us at 732-257-1137 or contact us online today. We serve clients in Ocean County, Monmouth County, Mercer County, Middlesex County, Union County and Somerset County.