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DUI Conviction Overturned in New Jersey: The Language Defense

A recent court decision about a DUI arrest and conviction in New Jersey could potentially have wide-ranging affects on DWI laws in the rest of the country. According to an article in USA Today by Laura Bruno, a Spanish-speaking man was stopped under suspicion of drunk driving, refused to take the breathalyzer test to determine his blood alcohol level, and was ultimately convicted of driving while under the influence of alcohol.  The man’s DUI attorney argued that the DUI conviction should be overturned because the man did not speak English and did not understand the police’s information about the breath test.  The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed and has issued a ruling that all drivers stopped for a potential DUI in New Jersey need to be informed in their own language about the repercussions of not taking the breathalyzer.

Currently in all states, persons stopped under suspicion of driving while intoxicated are informed by the police that if they refuse to take a breath alcohol test, their drivers’ license will be suspended. The breathalyzer is an opportunity to prove sobriety, so electing not to take the test often leads to a DUI conviction. Therefore, theoretically at least, failure to understand the police’s information about breathalyzer tests could cause sober drivers to refuse the test, resulting in unnecessary license suspension and improper DUI convictions.

Police in New Jersey have already been provided with breathalyzer test information translated into the 10 languages most commonly spoken in the state.  You have to wonder how New Jersey criminal defense attorneys will use this new ruling to assist their DWI defense clients. An important note: the ruling does not apply to people who fail to comprehend the officer’s information about breathalyzers because they are intoxicated!

It will be interesting to see if other states follow New Jersey’s lead.  A few states already provide information and translations for major languages such as Spanish, but there is no legal requirement to do so. In any case, it’s an intriguing defense and could have repercussions for Mississippi and Louisiana DUI convictions down the road.

Thomas Alonzo

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