State v. Rodriguez-Alejo

State v. Rodriguez-Alejo, A-0815-09T3, (N.J. Super. App. Div. March 25, 2011)

The defendant was convicted of violating N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.2 for refusing to submit to a breath test. On appeal, the defendant argued that his limited English proficiency prevented him from understanding the instructions regarding the breath sample. The Appellate Division overturned the conviction, finding that the defendant was not sufficiently warned of the breathalyzer process.

During the conversation he had with the arresting officer, the defendant indicated to the officer that he spoke very little English. The defendant was subsequently arrested for driving while intoxicated after failing a field sobriety test. At the police station, the officer administered a breathalyzer test. He quickly read the standard breathalyzer notification to which the defendant replied that he did not understand. When asked if he would submit to the breathalyzer, the defendant replied “I don’t understand” and then “yeah.” The officer did not read to the defendant the part of the breathalyzer notification that explains the effect of a refusal to undergo the test. The officer attempted to use hand gestures and a couple words in Spanish to explain what the defendant had to do. During his testimony at trial, the defendant testified, through an interpreter, that he conducted all his work and social activities in his native language.

In State v. Marquez, which was decided while the present case was pending appeal, the NJ Supreme court found that reading the statement to a motorist in a language they don’t understand is akin to not reading it at all. The holding in Marquez required the court to undertake a retroactivity analysis. The found that decision in Marquez should be given retroactive application which was just and consonant with public policy under State v. Nash, 64 N.J 464, 469 (1974). Neither the purpose of the rule, reliance on the law preceding decisions, nor administration-of-justice considerations justify limiting the rule announced in Marquez to application solely to cases arising after the decision was announced. The court found that the statement should have been read in its entirety in Spanish to the defendant.

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