New Jersey Supreme Court Opinion Affects DWI Implied Consent Law

The New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued an opinion that has major implications for law enforcement’s implementation of the state’s implied consent law. Like many jurisdictions, the Garden State’s DWI statutes include a provision that all drivers suspected of intoxication must submit to testing for the presence of alcohol in their system. Those who refuse are subject to license revocation for at least seven months to a year and a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offense. The Supreme Court has now decided that all motorists are entitled to an explanation of the law in a language they understand.

In a published opinion released July 12, the state Supreme Court held in State v. German Marquez that an officer's reading of the standard implied consent statement in English to a Spanish-speaking defendant failed to inform the defendant that refusal to submit to a breath test had serious consequences. The Court’s narrow majority opinion overturned the conviction and reversed a 2009 New Jersey Appellate Division decision.

How Do You Learn About the Consequences of Refusing a Breathalyzer Test?

Defendant German Marquez was suspected of intoxicated driving after a Plainfield, New Jersey, police officer responded to the scene of a collision in September of 2007 in which Marquez rear-ended another vehicle. The responding officer spoke to him in English, asking for his license, registration and insurance card, but had to repeat the request in Spanish to make him understand. Detecting an odor of alcohol and noticing Marquez’s slurred speech, the officer attempted to have him execute field sobriety tests, explaining the actions in English. Marquez swayed visibly, but the officer could tell that he did not understand the attempt to test his reflexes and balance, and he was placed under arrest.

At the police station, a certified Alcotest operator attempted to administer a breath test after Marquez was read the thirteen paragraphs of the “Division of Motor Vehicles Standard Statement for Operators of a Motor Vehicle” in English. This statement outlines the consequences of breath-test refusal in New Jersey, and includes the important statement: “If you refuse to provide samples of your breath you will be issued a separate summons for this refusal.”

The law enforcement personnel involved were all aware that Marquez did not understand what they were saying to him, and the prosecution did not contest this issue. At trial, the court found him guilty of DWI as well as refusal to submit to a breath test. The municipal court judge noted that defendant had refused to take the test and found no precedent requiring that the statement be read to a suspect in any language but English.

In upholding the conviction, the Appellate Division found that due process had been satisfied, but suggested that the Motor Vehicle Commission should translate the legal standard into Spanish and other prevalent languages. The Supreme Court decided to review the decision to consider Marquez’s position that he was never “informed” of the consequences he faced if he refused to blow into an alcohol measuring device.

A Close Reading of Statutory Intent

In a four-to-three decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the conviction. The court did not reach the due process issue, focusing instead on the plain meaning of the implied consent law and its close companion, the statute that explains the consequences of driver refusal. The majority concluded that one of four essential elements of the law was that “refusal convictions require proof that an officer requested a motorist to submit to a chemical breath test and informed the person of the consequences of refusing to do so.” Under the facts of this particular case, the court was convinced that the statutory elements were not met.

The court clearly distinguished this circumstance from a driver’s inability to understand an officer’s explanation because of intoxication. Although Marquez’s sentence for refusal to submit to a test was vacated, his DWI conviction stood due to the responding officer’s observations of intoxication, as well as video tape of Marquez. But the decision has major implications for law enforcement procedure and cases where the only clear proof of intoxication comes from a breath test. Innovations already in place, such as immediate over-the-phone translation services, may be implemented by some departments. But in many jurisdictions, the need for officers who are fluent in Spanish should already be self-evident.

Other issues will likely be resolved in future cases, such as the implications for deaf motorists, implementation of the new legal standard, and proof of a motorist’s language abilities. But the vast majority of DWI cases will continue to revolve around such issues as officers’ objective judgments of intoxication, reliability of test results and chain of custody for samples. Drivers accused of drug- and alcohol-related infractions can learn a great deal about their legal options by arranging a consultation with an experienced criminal defense lawyer.