NJ DWI – Speedy Trial

I field a lot of inquires from defendants regarding the length of time their DWI case is taking (or took to conclude) – and whether these delays are grounds for a dismissal.

Many clients confuse the unrelated concept of statute of limitations (N.J.S.A. 39:5-3) with the constitutional right to a speedy trial. N.J.S.A. 39:5-3 is the limitation period within which a Complaint can issue and process must be served for motor NJ vehicle violations including DWI (N.J.S.A. 39:4-50). A DWI Complaint for instance, must be issued and served within ninety days of the alleged offense. A right to a “speedy trial” however is a right guaranteed to defendants by the Constitution to have an offense speedily concluded

Below is an overview of the issue (speedy trial) in the context of a NJ DWI charge. Remember, every case is different and fact sensitive. Presenting this defense issue, like much of the law, is as much an art at it is science.

In State v. Cahill, 213 N.J. 253 (2013), the New Jersey Supreme Court examined the constitutional right to a speedy trial in the context of a DWI charge. The Court instructed, “[p]rompt disposition of criminal or quasi-criminal charges addresses the interest of the accused to be treated fairly … and prevents prejudice to the accused.” Id. at 276.

Courts should assess “four non-exclusive factors” to determine if a defendant’s constitutional speedy trial guarantees have been violated: “length of the delay, reason for the delay, assertion of the right by a defendant, and prejudice to the defendant” Id. at 264.; see also State v. Farrell, 320 N.J. Super. 425 (App. Div. 1999); State v. Tsetsekas, 411 N.J. Super. 1 (App. Div. 2009).

The Length of the Delay

 “There is no set length of time that fixes the point at which delay is excessive.” State v. Tsetsekas, 411 N.J. Super. at 12. In Cahill, the Court instructed that a gauge to a “presumptively prejudicial” delay is “the amount of time customarily required to dispose of similar charges.”  State v. Cahill, 213 N.J. at 265.

 The Cahill Court referred to New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Wilentz’s July 26, 1984 Directive #1-84 instructing that DWI charges be disposed of in 60 days. Id. at 269. The Court called the 60-day period a goal, not a “bright line rule.” Id. at 270. However, the Court said, “90 to 120 days should be the norm for disposing of [DWI] cases.” Id. at 274. The Court further noted that a case that “approaches one year” is “presumptively prejudicial.” Id. at 265. In Cahill, the Court called the 16-month delay “too long.” Id. at 277. Likewise, in State v. Tsetsekas, the Court found that 344 days, “more than five times the stated [Supreme Court] objective” … weighted heavily for the defense. State v. Tsetsekas, 411 N.J. Super. at 11.

The Reason for the Delay

“Once a defendant asserts a violation of his right to a speedy trial, the government is required to identify the reason for the delay.” State v. Cahill, 213 N.J. at 266.

A deliberate delay is weighted heavily for the defense. Id. The Court explained however that “[a] more neutral reason, however, such as negligence or a heavy caseload, will also be weighed against the government … because it is the government’s ultimate responsibility to prosecute cases in a timely fashion. A defendant does not have an obligation to assert his right to a speedy trial because he is under no obligation to bring himself to trial. Id. at 266. Court delays are charged to the State, not to the Defendant. State v. Farrell, 320 N.J. Super. at 450-451.

Assertion of Right

In Cahill, the Court said, “[a] defendant does not have an obligation to assert his right to a speedy trial because he is under no obligation to bring himself to trial.” Id. at 266. The Court explained, “[i]t is the State’s obligation to prosecute and do so in a manner consistent with defendant’s right to a speedy trial … Assertion of the right … is not dispositive of the merits of the claim and is certainly not a pre-condition to the invocation of a defendant’s right to a speedy trial. Id. at 274.

Prejudice

In Cahill, the Court explained that the “minimization of anxiety attributable to unresolved charges” is one of the interests the speedy trial right is designed to protect. Id. at 266. “A speedy trial violation can be established without evidence of prejudice.” Id. at 274 (citing State v. Farrell, supra., 320 N.J. Super. at 446. The Cahill Court explained, “every unresolved case carries with it some measure of anxiety.” Id.  “This is particularly true when one of the sanctions [for DWI is] a license suspension.” Id.

The court instructed in State v. Farrell, “prejudice to a defendant resulting from delay is no longer confined to inability to defend on the merits. Prejudice can also be found from employment interruptions, public obloquy, anxieties concerning the continued and unresolved prosecution and the like.” State v. Farrell, 320 N.J. Super. at 452.

Likewise, the Court in Tsetsakas recognized that “significant prejudice may also arise when the delay causes the loss of employment or other opportunities, humiliation, the anxiety in awaiting disposition of the pending charges, the drain in finances incurred for payment of counsel or expert witness fees and the other costs and inconveniences far in excess of what would have been reasonable under more acceptable circumstances. State v. Tsetsekas, 411 N.J. Super. at 13.

CONCLUSION: Winning a DWI case with a speedy trial motion is possible. Successful advocacy requires knowledge of the underlying legal tenets. These legal principles must be applied to the particular facts of each case by counsel with an artist’s touch.