While driving under the influence is a traffic violation under NJSA 39:4-50, the procedure is very different from that followed for any other traffic violation, and there are significant penalties associated with an arrest for driving under the influence.
At the time of your arrest, the officer will give you a ticket which is called a “Summons and Complaint.” In the Summons and Complaint, there will be a Notice to Appear which requires you to appear in the local municipal court on the date and time specified. This first appearance is called the “arraignment.” If you are not represented by an attorney you must appear in court on the date and time specified. The judge will then advise you of your rights and read the charges against you. At that time, you must enter a plea to the charge: either guilty or not-guilty. If you plead guilty you will be convicted of driving under the influence (or “DUI”), the municipal court will then suspend your license and driving privileges, and require you to tender your license to the clerk of the court. There are additional penalties (see the above link for significant penalties), including additional fines and surcharges, required attendance in classes through the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center, installation of an interlock device and potential jail time. An attorney can be valuable in helping to receive the minimum sentence possible and navigate this complex area of the law to protect your rights. If you want to plead not guilty, you should either contact an attorney prior to the arraignment date, or appear on at the arraignment and request an adjournment. Then contact an attorney as soon as possible.
If you have retained an attorney to represent you prior to the arraignment date, the attorney can waive your appearance at the arraignment and enter your plea by written submission to the court. The attorney will then request discovery from the prosecutor. Under New Jersey DUI law, this requires the municipal prosecutor to give you all the evidence and anything relevant to your charges. This is extremely important and is the best way to determine if the charges brought against you may be successfully fought in court. If the discovery shows that the law officer violated your rights or failed to follow the procedural requirements your attorney may be able to get the charges dismissed at trial. This is an important and strategic reason to retain legal counsel right away for your DUI/DWI charge.
While driving under the influence trials are not heard by a jury, you are entitled to a bench trial. At the trial, the municipal judge will listen to the evidence presented by your DUI attorney and the municipal prosecutor and make a ruling on your case. The State – ie. the municipal prosecutor – has the burden of proof and must prove that you drove under the influence of alcohol or drugs. You can cross-examine the witnesses presented by the State, including the arresting officer, and you can offer your own witnesses, usually a DWI expert. You are permitted but not required to testify on your own behalf. If you are found guilty at trial, you will be convicted and sentenced by the judge.