What Happened to this DWI Defendant Who Represented Himself?
- Dan T. Matrafajlo
- Sat Feb 2020
It’s an old saying allegedly attributable to Abraham Lincoln. According to legend, Lincoln claimed that “a man who represents himself has a fool for a client.” You’ll hear many lawyers concur with that opinion. No doubt this thought might have occurred after the fact for a DWI defendant who represented himself.
Meanwhile, that’s not to say that you can’t successfully take chances. However, when you’re faced with charges of any kind, it just makes sense to seek the assistance of an attorney with experience in a particular area of the law. On its own, driving while intoxicated represents a traffic violation. That said, you can still face jail time if you’re convicted.
At the end of last year, the New Jersey Appellate Division decided a case that helps illustrate the relevance of retaining legal counsel. Truth be told, the issue actually began back in 2003. At that time, the defendant appeared in court without legal counsel. He pled guilty to a DWI charge.
You might wonder about the significance of a legal matter that happened so many years ago. Suffice it to say, it has everything to do with two additional drunk driving charges.
According to New Jersey law, the number of DWI convictions matters when it comes to determining the related penalties. It should come as no surprise that third or subsequent offenses carry the harshest punishment. Therefore, this particular defendant had every reason to be concerned about his original guilty plea.
DWI Defendant Who Represented Himself Pled Guilty
In 2003, the defendant found himself charged with driving while intoxicated. For whatever reason, he showed up in municipal court without an attorney. According to the record, the defendant also received a traffic citation for failure to observe traffic lanes.
Prior to pleading guilty, the defendant signed paperwork regarding his decision. The plea document included a recommendation from the state that the court impose a minimum sentence for the DWI charge. Additionally, the defendant’s other traffic ticket would be merged and dismissed.
Part of the paperwork signed by the defendant in conjunction with the plea agreement outlined the penalties associated with the charges. Notably, one section of the paperwork specified that the defendant’s DWI charge was based on a .17 and .18 blood alcohol content (BAC) reading.
When the defendant appeared in municipal court, the judge addressed the fact that he was not represented by an attorney. According to the defendant, he felt he could convey “what happened without going through a $1500 attorney.”
The judge took the time to advise the defendant of the consequences of pleading guilty to DWI. Additionally, the court put on the record the effects of repeated offenses.
In the meantime, the judge failed to advise the defendant that he was entitled to court-appointed counsel. Notwithstanding, this would only be available if the defendant could not afford an attorney.
After advising the defendant of the penalties he faced, the judge asked the defendant again if he still wanted to proceed without an attorney. The defendant explained the circumstances leading to his arrest and pled guilty.
The court accepted the defendant’s plea and found him guilty. As part of his sentence, the defendant lost his driver’s license for 180 days.
Subsequent DWI Convictions
The court opinion does not reflect whether or not the defendant had legal counsel for his subsequent DWI convictions. The first was in 2007; the second, in 2008. The 2008 conviction resulted in a license suspension of ten years.
In January of 2016, the police pulled the defendant over while he was driving in a Bergen County community. The officer made the stop because of an unclear license plate.
At the time, the defendant was operating a vehicle owned by the passenger in the car. The defendant supplied the officer with a license issued “for identification purposes only.” Eventually, the defendant admitted he did not have a license allowing him to operate a motor vehicle.
When the officer ran the defendant’s name, he discovered that the defendant’s license was suspended for DWI. He was subsequently arrested, charged and convicted of operating a motor vehicle during a period when his license was suspended due to a DWI conviction.
Driving while on a suspended list due to a DWI conviction comes with serious penalties. While drunk driving offenses are traffic matters, this type of charge is actually criminal.
This time the defendant did have an attorney. However, he was found guilty of operating the vehicle without a license. Prior to sentencing, his lawyer filed a motion to withdraw the defendant’s 2003 plea.
Consequently, the judge denied the request, while acknowledging that the defendant did not state he was drunk. However, the court also pointed out that defendant signed off on the paperwork that stated his BAC level. This proved that he had exceeded drunk driving levels.
As it turns out, the municipal court judge who took the defendant’s 2003 plea was the same one assigned to consider its withdrawal. The judge acknowledged he could have done a better job in explaining some things back in 2003. Nonetheless, he denied the withdrawal.
Defendant Persisted in Attempts to Withdraw Plea
When the municipal court judge ruled against the plea withdrawal, the defendant appealed. The case was assigned to the judge who decided the 2016 matter.
After a trial, the court followed the municipal court ruling. In the first place, the defendant received the order stating his BAC and never said he was innocent of driving while intoxicated. Additionally, the judge noted the extraordinary delay in bringing the application. After all, it was a matter of fifteen years.
At sentencing, the court characterized the defendant’s conduct as “outrageous, and … heighten[ed] the need to deter” him. He was sentenced to 364 days in jail and three years of probation.
On appeal, the court considered the law as it existed when the court denied the motion to withdraw the plea. While it based on applicable law at the time, new case law was decided by the Supreme Court in August of 2019.
In the State v. Patel matter, the Supreme Court spoke on the issue of appearing in court without proper notice regarding the right to counsel in a DWI case:
“When notice of the right to counsel is not given in DWI cases, to obtain the special form of relief recognized in Laurick, neither indigent nor non-indigent defendants should be required to establish that the outcome of the proceeding would have been different had they been given the opportunity to retain counsel or secure appointed counsel.”
The defendant was subsequently released from jail, and the lower court’s decision was vacated. It was remanded for further consideration.