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New Jersey Court Rules Involuntary, Unknowing Intoxication no Defense to DWI

The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court handed down its ruling in the case of State v. Federico, Docket No. A-0678-08T4 (N.J.A.D. 2010), last week. The case presented the issue of whether a defendant accused of DWI could use as a defense the fact that he was affected without his knowledge by dangerous chemicals in his office and not by alcohol or any other controlled substance. The court ruled that even under those circumstances, there is not defense for DWI.

Joseph Federico was found by officers on patrol a little before 2 A.M. on November 3, 2006. Mr. Federico was sleeping in his car and when the officers woke him up and questioned him, he told them he had had a few drinks at a party in another town. However, security records at his office showed that he had been there less than an hour before being found, and because the the town where he said he had been was more than an hour away, the consensus is that Mr. Federico was not at a party after all. The officers who found him recorded that he slurred his speech and performed poorly on field sobriety tests. They concluded he was “obviously impaired.” Mr. Federico refused a breath alcohol test when he was read the implied consent warning.

At trial, Mr. Federico had two different doctors testify for him that his condition on the night of the arrest could have been caused by the chemicals to which he was exposed that night. Mr. Federico’s co-workers also testified and confirmed that they were all exposed to toxic chemicals without their knowledge that night and those could have been responsible for Mr. Federico’s impairment. The trial judge did not allow him to use these facts as a defense, however, because it ruled that New Jersey’s DWI law is an “absolute liability” offense. This means that if an offense occurs, even if by accident, by mistake, without the defendant’s knowledge, or despite someone’s best efforts to prevent it, the defendant is still guilty.

Mr. Federico appealed, arguing that the toxic chemicals had made it impossible for him to be aware of being intoxicated or being in a car. The court agreed with the trial court that whether he knew he was intoxicated or in control of the car was irrelevant because the law requires only that the driver be under the influence. The court went on to say that the law was written to reflect a “clear legislative intent and a strong legislative policy to discourage long trials complicated by pretextual defenses.”

Similarly, the appeals court ruled there was no defense for criminal refusal for being unable to understand the choice to accept chemical testing. In other words, once a driver indicates that the understand the warning itself, the fact that they are in no condition to make an informed rational choice is irrelevant, no matter the reason.

The appeals court affirmed the decision of the trial court and upheld Mr. Federico’s conviction. Mr. Federico was sentenced to approximately 8 months in jail, a $2000 fine, and a 12-year license suspension, but because he had been tried without a jury, the court had to send his case back to the trial court for re-sentencing. In general, only crimes for which the punishment is less than 6 months in jail can be tried without a jury and so Mr. Federico’s sentence was unconstitutional as it was.

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