Pretrial Hearing Evidence Can’t Determine Guilt in DWI Trial

Last week, the Superior Court Appellate Division in Camden County, NJ decided an appeal concerning the ability of a judge to rely upon evidence heard in a pre-trial suppression hearing as proof that the defendant was guilty of drunk driving. In State v. Gibson, it was held that the defendant’s DUI conviction under N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 was made in violation of his due process rights when it was entered based solely on testimony introduced at a pre-trial suppression hearing. As a result, the DUI conviction was reversed in the Court’s February 7, 2013 opinion.

What is a Pretrial Suppression Hearing?

Also called a “Rule 104” hearing, a suppression hearing is a court session often requested by a criminal defendant’s attorney to challenge the admissibility of evidence offered by the prosecutor. When your home, car or person is searched in a criminal investigation, the officers performing the search must do it lawfully. If it is not done correctly, the evidence collected by the officer during the search, and sometimes the arrest made based on the evidence found, may be excluded from the prosecutor’s case against the defendant after a Motion to Suppress is filed by the defense counsel. A Motion to Suppress is an application made to the court which challenges the admissibility of the search against the defendant.

Preponderance of the Evidence vs. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Preponderance of the Evidence

At a pretrial hearing, the standard of proof is lesser than that at a trial. At such a hearing, the evidence set forth by the prosecution must meet the probable cause standard by the preponderance of the evidence. This means that the prosecutor must prove that it is more likely than not that the facts are true. In the case of a suppression hearing, discussed above, the prosecution must prove that it is more likely than not that the facts establish that the officers had the necessary probable cause to perform the particular search being questioned.

In Gibson, this means that the State was required to prove that there was enough probable cause for both pulling over and subsequently arresting the defendant. Defendant’s challenge to the admissibility of such evidence was denied at the suppression hearing upon the municipal court’s finding of probable cause for the stop based on defendant’s speed, and the case moved forward to trial.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

At trial, the standard of proof is heightened to beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard requires that the prosecutor prove that no other logical explanation can be derived other than that the defendant committed the crime charged. If the judge or jury has no doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, the defendant can be found guilty applying the beyond a reasonable doubt standard. At trial, the evidence offered by the prosecution is to start fresh, not as an addition to evidence introduced at a prior pre-trial hearing which used another standard of proof and different rules.

In this case, the municipal court permitted the trial to continue directly from the testimony offered at the suppression hearing. The prosecution then rested its case and defense counsel moved to dismiss the charges if the evidence wasn’t presented again for trial purposes. Over defendant’s objection, the trial court proceeded to closing argument, adopting the suppression hearing evidence and without asking defense counsel if he wanted to call any witnesses. This decision violated the protections given to a defendant at a suppression hearing.

DUI Defendant’s Procedural Rights Violated

Although a DUI or DWI charge is not an indictable offense in New Jersey, a defendant in a drunk driving proceeding in municipal court is entitled to due process of law. Due process requires that the parties have notice and an opportunity to know the State’s evidence and to present evidence in response. In Gibson, the Appellate Division declared that it was unfair for the trial judge to rely upon the evidence obtained at the pre-trial hearing at trial because the two proceedings are governed by different rules and evidential standards. Additionally, the court pointed out that, by preventing the police officer from testifying again at trial, the defendant’s right to confront the witnesses against him was limited. Upon excluding the evidence from the suppression hearing, the State was left with no evidence put forth at trial, warranting a finding of not guilty for the DWI charge. The Appellate Division ordered a reversal of the drunk driving conviction.

Has One of Your Constitutional Rights Been Violated? Call a Villani & DeLuca Lawyer

If you have been charged with a crime or disorderly persons offense, such as a DWI, DUI or refusal, in Ocean County or Monmouth County, New Jersey, you need to speak with an experienced criminal defense lawyer to ensure that your rights are protected. The experienced New Jersey DWI attorneys at Villani & DeLuca, P.C. offer free initial consultations, during which you can go over the facts of your case before deciding how you’d like to proceed with your defense. An attorney will explain how the evidence collected may be used against you and discuss ways you may be able to get that evidence suppressed. Call 732-965-3350 today to set up your appointment with a Villani & DeLuca NJ criminal defense lawyer!

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