State Supreme Court to Rule on Right to Jury Trial in DWI Cases
On February 17, 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments in an appeal from a New Jersey resident facing a fourth prosecution for drinking and driving. The legal issue the court has been asked to consider? Whether a person charged with DWI in New Jersey has a right to trial by a jury of his or her peers. In the case before the Supreme Court, State of New Jersey v. James R. Denelsbeck, the defendant requested a jury trial in municipal court, but his request was denied. The lower court ruling was affirmed in both the Superior Court and the Appellate Division.
Though many perceive the right to trial by jury to be automatic and universal, the U.S. Constitution does not grant such an absolute right. Pursuant to the terms of the 6th Amendment, a defendant only has a right to a jury trial if the potential sanction may be more than six months. Under New Jersey law, Denelsbeck, if convicted, would face a maximum sentence of six months. Accordingly, the trial judge denied the request.
Notwithstanding the provisions of the 6th Amendment, many states have allowed defendants in drunk driving cases have their cases heard and decided by a jury. In New Jersey, however, it has long been the practice to have DWI cases heard in municipal court, where all matters are handled by a judge. Numerous efforts have been made over the last 25 years to move DWI prosecutions to Superior Court, where a defendant may have a jury trial. State officials have resisted the attempt, citing concerns about the costs of the many jury trials that would ensue.
The New Jersey Supreme Court established the current precedent in 1990, in State v. Hamm, concluding that, in New Jersey, a DWI is a motor vehicle infraction instead of a crime. The ruling in Hamm was consistent with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling a year earlier that found that DWI defendants facing a potential incarceration of six months or less do not have a right to trial by jury.
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