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DWI Repeat Offenders Go to Trial?

April 20, 2015 | Posted In Drunk Driving - DUI/DWI

The right to a trial by jury is dependent largely on the type of crime you are accused of committing. In New Jersey, drunk driving charges negate that right. However, a recent case before the state Supreme Court may bring change as the justices hear arguments to support a trial-by-jury system for repeat drunk driving offenders.

The issue was reopened before the Court with the appeal of James Denelsbeck, a New Jersey man who was sentenced to a minimum of 180 days in jail as penalty for his fourth DWI conviction. Denelsbeck demanded a trial by jury, but was denied by municipal court judges, the Superior Court and the Appellate Division.

Although the final decision from the Appellate Court to deny the jury trial was unanimous, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear Denelsbeck’s case and consider the current laws regarding DUI/DWI hearings.

Drunk Driving Trial History

In 1990, the state Supreme Court ruled in State v. Hamm that jury trials for DWI convictions were not allowed. The reason behind their decision was based on statutory law, which clearly defines driving while intoxicated as a motor vehicle violation rather than a criminal offense. Even if convicted drunk drivers may be penalized by jail time for repeat offenses, the right to a trial by jury is not necessarily afforded to non-criminal violations.

The New Jersey Supreme Court justices issued their ruling only a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Blanton v. Las Vegas that drunk drivers who are facing six months or less in prison should not be guaranteed jury trials. However, the U.S. Supreme Court also held in a 1968 case that any driver who is facing six months or more in jail for DUI/DWI charges does have the right to a trial by jury, and New Jersey has held with that statute.

When Denelsbeck demanded a trial by jury, he reasoned that his fourth drunk driving offense could land him behind bars for more than 180 days because that is the minimum penalty for a repeat offender. At that point, he could potentially face time beyond the six-month limit set by the U.S. Supreme Court, exceeding standard penalties in non-trial cases.

At the state Supreme Court hearing, Denelsbeck will argue that he is entitled to a trial by jury because of his potential for an extended sentence. Advocates of Denelsbeck’s cause suggest that one option would be to establish a precedent that allows jury trials for drivers who are facing their third or subsequent DUI conviction, to avoid going over the 6-month timeframe.

Will the Change Affect Your Case?

At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, we represent drivers who have been charged with DUI/DWI. Repeat offenders risk being given extend jail sentences similar to those assigned to criminal offenders but do not have the same options for trial and defense, and the state Supreme Court has the opportunity to make a critical change that could affect all state drivers. To discuss your drunk driving case, contact one of our New Jersey DUI/DWI attorneys for a consultation today.


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