No doubt you already realize there are consequences to drunk driving charges. However, did you know? If the judge does find you guilty of driving while intoxicated, you may have reasons to appeal the ruling. With that in mind, you may be interested to learn why the New Jersey Appellate Division recently overturned a DWI conviction.
First, it helps to understand some basic procedures associated with the prosecution of both DWI and DUI cases. In New Jersey, both driving under the influence and driving while intoxicated represent traffic offenses. As such, Rule 7.1 of the New Jersey Rules of Court assigns the local municipal court judge to hear your case.
Local means the jurisdiction where your DWI arrest occurred. For example, if you were pulled over in Linden, the Linden prosecutor presents the evidence against you, and the Linden judge decides it. You do not have the benefit of a jury trial.
If you are unhappy with the outcome of your DWI trial before the municipal judge, you have the right to appeal the verdict. That said, you should retain an attorney with experience in handling cases on behalf of defendants charged with driving while intoxicated, or under the influence.
The first level appeal goes to the Superior Court, Law Division in the county where your charges originated. Thus, if you were convicted of DWI in any of the municipalities in Union County, your appeal receives consideration in Elizabeth. Those with DWI convictions within Essex County can expect their appeal to be heard in Newark.
The Law Division represents just the first level of appeal for DWI offenders displeased with the outcome of their case. If you lose the appeal there, the Appellate Division considers whether your conviction should stand.
Appellate Court Overturns DWI Conviction
In early March 2019, the New Jersey Appellate Division rendered a decision in State v. Vilorio-Ramirez. The legal opinion is unpublished and therefore, applies only to the named parties.
On March 11, 2017, two West New York police officers investigated a report of a car blocking the driveway of a residence. When they arrived on the scene, they discovered Rafael Vilorio-Ramirez asleep in the driver’s seat.
Even though Rafael wasn’t awake, the ignition was turned on, and the engine was running. When the police officers awakened the defendant, they noticed his breath emitted a strong odor of alcohol.
In the meantime, the officers claimed they observed something else. More specifically, they noted an open bottle of vodka, together with another open bottle containing wine.
As they began questioning Rafael, the officers found he gave inconsistent answers. According to the policemen’s observations, the defendant appeared intoxicated and had vomit on his clothes. Meanwhile, the police stated that Rafael admitted he drank three beers prior to the police coming to his car.
The officers administered field sobriety tests, including a horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test. The police arrested Rafael after he failed the latter and charged him with DWI after they gave him a breathalyzer test.
Municipal Court Trial
The charges filed against the defendant didn’t just include driving while under the influence. Rafael also received tickets for an uninsured vehicle, DWI in a school zone, and parking in front of a driveway without the owner’s permission.
The municipal court judge heard the case and disposed of everything but the DWI charge. That said, the court ordered suppression of the breathalyzer results due to lack of foundational documents.
In presenting his case, the defendant explained that he and his wife sold their condominium. He returned to the home to retrieve some items and was only two blocks away when he stopped his car. Rafael parked to take his medication for high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer.
According to the defendant, he worked two jobs and was exhausted. Rafael testified that he turned the car off and took the keys out. The defendant denied that he drank any alcohol at all that evening. As far as the open bottles of alcohol, Rafael claimed they were actually intact and in a bag with a receipt.
As far as the encounter with the police officers? The defendant stated he never told them that he drank three beers and never submitted to the HGN test. He denied vomiting. Also, Rafael watched as the police officers opened up the bottles of alcohol and poured them out.
The defendant’s wife collaborated his testimony based on her observations when she picked him up after his arrest. Rafael did not smell not like alcohol or vomit. Additionally, he bought the alcohol for her to celebrate the sale of their condo.
In the meantime, one of the police officers testified in court. No credibility findings regarding the defendant’s or his wife’s testimony are mentioned in the record. However, the judge found the policeman’s testimony credible and found Rafael guilty of DWI.
Law Division Appeal
When the appeal was presented to the Law Division, the judge expressed dismay. It wasn’t just that the police failed to preserve the bottles of wine and vodka as evidence. All things considered, they could have at least taken a photograph, demonstrating the bottles were not filled to capacity.
You might think that noting the spoliation of evidence meant the DWI case warranted dismissal on this level of appeal. Of interest, the police car was equipped with a mobile vehicle recording device (MVR) and the officer failed to use it.
Nevertheless, the Law Division judge affirmed the decision based solely on the police officer’s observations. This was “”some evidence that it was cold that night, [defendant] was sleeping and possibly disoriented, [and defendant] suffered from medical issues[.]
On appeal, the defendants raised the police officer’s failure to use the MVR during the arrest. The Appellate Division disagreed with any negative inferences. The officer was not legally required to use the recorder.
However, there was a problem concerning the destruction of the alcohol bottles. They represented critical evidence and their destruction “constituted “bad faith,” thereby depriving defendant of his due process rights.”
Quite simply, the destruction of the bottles prevented the defense from establishing the assertion that the bottles were unopened. This would have supported Rafael’s testimony that he was not drinking that evening or in possession of open containers.
Additionally, the defendant testified that he could not perform the field sobriety test because of medical issues. He denied vomiting and his wife confirmed he did not appear drunk.
For multiple reasons, the Appellate Division reversed the defendant’s convictions.
The Law Offices of Beninato & Matrafajlo has handled thousands of DWI cases. When appropriate, we help clients through the appeals process. A wrongful DWI conviction can change your life. Contact us to learn how we can help you.