Stelios Stoupakis reports on a recent unpublished decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, dealing with a police officer’s handling of alleged open bottles of wine and vodka located in the vehicle operated by the Defendant, who was charged with driving while intoxicated (“DWI”).
The Appellate Division recently maintained the importance of a Defendant’s due process rights against the “policy” of a certain police department in matters involving open alcohol containers. The police allegedly found Defendant sleeping in his automobile with the engine running and vomit located within the interior of the vehicle. Upon being woken up, Defendant was speaking incoherently, had bloodshot/watery eyes, and smelled of alcohol. Notably, two open alcohol containers were also located in the Defendant’s vehicle.
The Defendant was arrested and convicted of DWI and possessing open alcohol containers in a motor vehicle. For certain reasons unrelated to this article, the breathalyzer test was found inadmissible, and thus, the convictions were solely based on the officer’s observations and the alleged two opened bottles of alcohol found in the car. However, the open bottles were never admitted into evidence because it was the police department’s ‘policy’ to dispose of alcohol related to offenses rather than store as evidence. Despite the inadmissibility of the breathalyzer and the unavailability of the open bottles as evidence, both courts, Municipal and, on appeal, the New Jersey Superior Court, Law Division, found there was sufficient evidence to convict Defendant guilty on both charges.
The Defendant appealed to the Appellate Division, arguing that he was denied due process by the State destroying exculpatory evidence, i.e., the two bottles of alcohol. Exculpatory evidence is evidence that is favorable to the Defendant and exonerates or tends to exonerate him. In this case, the Defendant alleged that he did not drink alcohol and that he fell asleep because he was exhausted from work. Furthermore, the Defendant testified that the bottles referenced by police were unopened. Essentially, the police disposed of potentially exculpatory evidence, and both convictions were based on the Courts (both Municipal and Law Division) finding the police officer’s testimony to be more credible than the Defendant’s and his wife’s testimony.
The Appellate Division reversed the Defendant’s convictions in accordance with “fundamental principles of due process [which] generally require the State to disclose exculpatory evidence.” The Appellate Division recognized that without the breathalyzer results being admissible, the premise of the case fell on which version of events is more credible. As so, the Police Department’s policy of destroying, in this case, the two bottles of alcohol equated to ‘bad faith’ hereby depriving the Defendant of his due process rights.
Please contact Stelios Stoupakis if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with this subject.