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Uncounseled Guilty Pleas Count Against Drunk Drivers

February 18, 2014 | Posted In Drunk Driving - DUI/DWI

Last month, the state Appellate Court issued a ruling that constrained a 25-year-old law regarding uncounseled guilty pleas for drunk driving convictions, DUI/DWI attorneys in New Jersey report. According to the appellate court’s ruling, defendants who are facing drunk driving charges may also be facing up to their old crimes—including uncounseled guilty pleas for previous DUI/DWI convictions. This drunk driving record could also have a negative impact on the defendant’s sentencing, as was the case for Michael Panichella, a defendant on trial for his third DUI conviction.  

In 2010, Panichella was sentenced to 180 days of jail time after being charged with drunk driving in Pittsgrove. His extended jail time was assessed due to two prior guilty pleas for drunk driving on his record—one in 1986, and one in 2008. At the time of his 1986 guilty plea, Panichella, who was 20 years old at the time, was unable to afford a lawyer for his trial, and pleaded guilty to driving drunk and causing a one-car accident, without outside consult or advice. He moved to withdraw his guilty plea for this conviction, or to have an order issued that would eliminate the oldest conviction from his list of prior DUI offenses. If eliminated, judges could not use that earliest conviction against Panichella in any further sentencing. 

Panichella submitted a copy of the summons from his 1986 trial, which indicated that he had been advised of his right to obtain a lawyer. In the court documents, Panichella’s signature is on one form that explains the impact a drunk driving conviction will have on any subsequent convictions, with specific reference to an imposed 180-day jail sentence for a third drunk driving charge.  This signature led the appellate judges to reverse the Superior Court’s decision to strike the 1986 conviction, stating that the defendant had been warned of the consequences of driving drunk after his first conviction.  

Anyone seeking relief under the 1990 case State v. Laurick, 120 N.J. 1, must compile the facts of the trial in order to establish a prima facie case. Panichella’s petition indicates that he was indigent at the time he made his guilty plea in 1986, but does not prove that he had never been told he could hire a lawyer, or that one would be provided to him if necessary. His petition only states that he does not remember being told about his right to counsel. He also does not prove that a lack of counsel prejudiced him in any way, as he had previously admitted to drinking prior to the accident, and did not offer any other explanation beyond intoxication. Additionally, applications for relief under this ruling typically must be filed within 5 years, and Panichella’s conviction occurred 27 years ago.

The old ruling that the state Appellate Court has constrained stated that any uncounseled plea of guilty for a drunk driving charge cannot count as a prior conviction, should the defendant be charged with additional drunk driving instances, and cannot have influence on a current sentence. In Panichella’s case, the appellate judges considered both of the man’s charges to have influence on his current—and third—DUI conviction, leading to the imposed jail time that he will now have to serve. 

At Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our drunk driving attorneys represent New Jersey residents who have been charged with a DUI/DWI, or are facing jail time for a second or third offense. Contact an HCK DUI/DWI attorney to discuss your options today. 

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