The New Jersey Law Journal reported this month that they will hear arguments on a case, State v. Denelsbeck, that will ask the question: are those facing the stiff penalties of a 3rd or subsequent DWI charge entitled to a jury trial?
The State of New Jersey had basically decided the question of jury trials in DWI matters years ago in its 1990 ruling in State v. Hamm. In that case, the right to a jury trial was not found to exist in DWI cases in New Jersey.
Now it seems that the question is being revisited. This is potentially good news for those facing the 180 day jail term associated with a third offense DWI charge in New Jersey.
As the Law Journal reported:
Denelsbeck, when he was charged with his fourth offense in Ventnor, New Jersey, on Oct. 5, 2011, demanded a jury trial on the grounds that his aggregate term could exceed 180 days, despite the assertion by the municipal prosecutor that no additional jail time would be sought.
The Appellate Division rejected Denelsbeck’s appeal in an eight-paragraph ruling.
“Despite the fact that the Legislature regards DWI as a profound social problem, it has yet to impose the full force of law on that offense that would denote a social evaluation that DWI is a ‘crime’ or an offense that equates with the need of trial by jury,” Judges Carmen Alvarez and Harry Carroll said.
The state has long opposed any efforts to move DWI cases out of municipal court, where cases are decided by a judge, to the Superior Court, in large part to avoid the expenses associated with jury trials.
The state Supreme Court, when it announces that it has decided to accept an appeal, does not give an explanation. It does, however, frame the question presented and in Denelsbeck’s case lawyers will argue whether he was entitled to a jury trial because of the potential aggregate penalty he faced.
One possibility is that the court could order jury trials for DWI defendants facing a third or subsequent offense.
“I think they may,” said Denelsbeck’s lawyer, Point Pleasant, New Jersey, solo John Menzel.
Penalties for multiple DWI violations are getting close to that “bright-line” rule established in Duncan, he said.
The Legislature recently passed a bill, A1368, which would reduce the amount of time a DWI offender would have his or her license suspended and instead have the offender install an ignition interlock device. But a section of that bill, which is awaiting action by Gov. Chris Christie, would require offenders with three or more DWI convictions to perform 60 hours of supervised community service in addition to serving a 180-day jail sentence.
If enacted, Menzel said, that measure would, in essence, push a third-time offender’s potential penalty beyond 180 days and would thus run afoul of Duncan.
“That could guarantee a right to a jury trial,” he said. Even though DWI offenses are still considered to be motor vehicle violations, Menzel said the Legislature has consistently been moving toward a system where the penalties are punitive rather than rehabilitative.
“We may be at a point where the Supreme Court says enough is enough,” he said.