DWI & Prior offenses and 6 months in Jail

Submitted by New Jersey DWI Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

On December 1 the New Jersey legislature’s July modifications to the DWI statute became effective.  The legislative changes enabled first time offenders to not lose their license for a DWI conviction. This may lead many to not hire an attorney or fight their case because they didn’t risk losing their license, which would risk losing job, losing income, losing ability to commute. However subsequent DWI convictions raise significant jail sentences, and license suspension prospects. This case is a perfect example of that prospect and is a must read at this time. MY office has filed numerous “Laurick” motions to withdraw prior guilty pleas for DWI in municipal courts for defendants who did not have an attorney or were not told they could hire an attorney.  Many municipal courts do not have records, recordings of hearing or plea testimony pre-2000.  This is an important factor which needs to be looked into if any one is charges with N.J.S.A 2C:40-26(b).  Please call our office if you are in this position so we can to the best to help.

STATE OF NEW JERSEY v. MATTHEW P. ARLUNA,  Decided December 12, 2019

Procedural History

In 2003, defendant appeared without counsel in the Ho-Ho-Kus Municipal Court and pled guilty to a charge of driving while intoxicated (DWI), N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, resulting in his first DWI conviction. He acquired two more DWI convictions thereafter. For his third DWI conviction, defendant received a ten- year suspension of his driver’s license in 2008. In 2016, defendant was pulled over while driving a friend’s car. Because his license remained suspended, defendant was charged with violating N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26(b), operating a motor vehicle while his license was suspended for a second or subsequent DWI conviction, a fourth-degree criminal offense.

On November 15, 2017, a jury found defendant guilty of violating N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26(b). Prior to sentencing, defendant filed a motion to withdraw his uncounseled 2003 guilty plea, pursuant to State v. Laurick, 120 N.J. 1 (1990).1 The Ho-Ho-Kus Municipal Court denied the motion and defendant appealed. On August 15, 2018, following a trial de novo, the Law Division also denied defendant’s motion. On November 9, 2018, the same Law Division judge sentenced defendant to 364 days in the county jail and three years of probation.

Defendant filed appeals challenging both Law Division orders. On April 15, 2019, this court consolidated both appeals.

Defendant’s brief presents the following points of arguments: POINT I






  1. The 2003 Guilty Plea is Founded Upon an Inadequate Factual Basis. The Law Division Should Have V acated That Conviction and Refused to Consider It During Sentencing on the Indicatable Offense.
  2. The Court’s Failure to Advise the Defendant of His Right to a Municipal Public Defender Once He Indicated a Private Attorney Was Cost-Prohibitive Also Renders the 2003 DUI Conviction and Sentence Invalid.
  1. The Court’s Rationale for Finding Aggravating Factor Nine was Patently Flawed.

While we conclude that defendant’s first two points lack sufficient merit to warrant extended discussion,2 R. 2:11-3(e)(2), we find that sub points A. and B. under Point III do have merit, in light of the recent decision of the Supreme Court in State v. Patel, ___ N.J. ___, ___ (2019) (slip op.). For the reasons that follow, we vacate the orders under review and remand for further proceedings consistent with Patel.


On May 2, 2003, police pulled over defendant and cited him for DWI, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, and failure to observe traffic lanes, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-88. Prior to entering his plea, defendant signed a “Notice of Motion to Enter a Plea Agreement,” which indicated the State recommended the minimum sentence for his DWI charge, and the citation for failure to observe traffic lanes would be merged and dismissed. Defendant also signed the “Intoxicated Driver Penalty Provisions Court Order” which outlined the penalties imposed by the court. The “Defendant Information” section of the order stated defendant was charged with DWI based on a .17 and .18 blood alcohol content (BAC).

On June 4, 2003, defendant appeared without counsel before the Ho-Ho- Kus Municipal Court, where the following colloquy occurred:

Judge: Let[‘]s get right to the case here. One charge is being dismissed. [The DWI] charge you’ve indicated that you wish to plead guilty to it,

Defendant: Yes.

Judge: [The DWI] charge is a charge that carries with it rather severe penalties[. Therefore,] you have the absolute right to an attorney to represent your interest in that particular case.

Defendant: Yes.
Judge: Do you understand that? Defendant: Yes.

Judge: Do you have any problem understanding what I just told you?

Defendant: No.

Judge: Do you wish to proceed in this matter with or without an attorney?

Defendant: Without. Judge: Why?

Defendant: Because I can convey to you what happened without going through a [$1500] attorney.

Judge: [T]hat’s a very fair comment, and I don’t mean it in any other way. But just so you understand, I have to be careful, obviously, when people represent themselves, you know, again, only because there are certain rights that they may or may not know about or have, and I understand that.

Defendant: Yes.

The judge explained to defendant the consequences of pleading guilty to DWI and outlined the consequences of repeated offenses; however, at no point did the judge advise defendant he was entitled to court-appointed counsel, if he could not afford an attorney. After discussing the consequences of his DWI and the consequences of subsequent offenses, the following additional exchange occurred:

Judge: I’m not saying that to scare you but to again let you know what the penalties are and to make sure that you are proceeding and know what you’re doing.

Defendant: Yes.
Judge: All right. You still wish to proceed?

Defendant: Yes.

Judge: Okay. I am satisfied you know what you’re doing. Again, I’m not trying to be a wise guy, I just want you to understand I’m kind of careful when it comes to those things[.]

Defendant: I understand.
Defendant then testified that, prior to police pulling him over, he went to a bar with some friends, “had a shot” that “was 190 proof” and drank a beer. Defendant then added that the shot was “probably what put me over the limit.” The judge stated, “I’m satisfied that you do, in fact, know what you did. You also are quite aware of the ramifications and penalties. . . .”

The judge then accepted defendant’s guilty plea, found him guilty of DWI, and merged the charge of failure to observe traffic lanes. As part of defendant’s sentence, the judge suspended his license for 180 days. In 2007, defendant was convicted of his second DWI. In 2008, defendant was convicted of his third DWI. As part of the sentence imposed for his third DWI, the court suspended his license for ten years.

On January 22, 2016, defendant was pulled over by a police officer in the Borough of Waldwick for having an unclear license plate, in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-33. The owner of the vehicle was a passenger. Defendant provided the officer with a license issued “for identification purposes only” eventually, defendant admitted he did not have a valid driver’s license. Defendant also admitted to drinking one beer before driving his passenger’s vehicle. A dispatcher ran defendant’s license and informed the officer his license was suspended for DWI. On January 30, 2017, a grand jury returned an indictment charging defendant with violating N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26(b). Following a trial, on November 15, 2017, a jury found defendant guilty of the charge.

Prior to his sentencing hearing, defendant filed a motion in the Ho-Ho- Kus Municipal Court, seeking to withdraw his 2003 guilty plea, after his counsel reviewed a transcript of defendant’s 2003 plea hearing. The municipal court judge denied the motion, but acknowledged “the [c]ourt[,] in a self-critical analysis[,] could have done a better job on the issues of the right to appeal and operation of the motor vehicle.” The judge who denied the motion was the same judge who accepted defendant’s guilty plea in 2003.

Defendant then filed an appeal from the denial of his motion to withdraw his 2003 guilty plea. Defendant’s appeal was heard by the same judge who presided at defendant’s trial on the N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26(b) charge. Following a trial de novo, the judge denied the motion. Even though defendant did not state he was drunk, the judge found defendant knew he was over the legal limit because he received an order notifying him that he had a .17 and .18 BAC at the time of his arrest. The judge further noted defendant’s “extraordinary delay” in bringing his application and the “equities weigh[ed] heavily against [him]” because he failed to argue he was innocent of the DWI. Lastly, the judge found withdrawing his plea agreement would create an “unfair prejudice” to the State and an unfair advantage to defendant because the underlying offense occurred over fifteen years prior.

On November 9, 2018, the same Law Division judge presided at defendant’s sentencing hearing. The judge found aggravating factors three, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(3) (risk of recidivism); six, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(a)(6) (criminal history and seriousness of conviction); and nine, N.J.S.A. 2C:44- 1(a)(9) (deterrence). The judge found that defendant’s admitted drinking – although not being drunk – and driving, after having three prior DWIs, made his conduct “outrageous, and . . . heighten[ed] the need to deter” him. He further found defendant’s sentencing memo “attempt[ed] to minimize the seriousness of this offense by arguing that there was nobody else on the road. Even if that’s true the argument highlights the fact that defendant simply doesn’t understand the seriousness of this offense, and the need to deter this defendant in particular is extremely strong.”

The judge found mitigating factors ten, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(b)(10) (probation); and eleven, N.J.S.A. 2C:44-1(b)(11) (imprisonment would entail excessive hardship). The judge then sentenced defendant to 364 days in the Bergen County Jail and three years of probation. The judge ordered defendant to surrender on March 1, 2019, “or within [seventy-two hours] of denial of a stay by the Appellate Division.” No motion for a stay was filed, and defendant began serving his jail sentence on March 18, 2019.

While we are convinced the Law Division judge correctly denied defendant’s motion to withdraw his uncounseled 2003 guilty plea, based upon the applicable law at the time, after his decision, our Supreme Court decided Patel on August 7, 2019. Relevant to this appeal, the Court held:

[W]hen 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.

Before Patel, the Court had ruled in Laurick that unless the lack of counsel results in a “miscarriage of justice,” the court should not grant relief. 120 N.J. at 10.

A remand to the Law Division is required so that the court can reconsider the orders under review and fully address all relevant issues, with the guidance provided by the Court in Patel. The Law Division shall immediately enter an order for defendant’s release from the county jail pending the court’s further consideration of these orders.

Posted in

Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

Leave a Comment