On February 23, 2024, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued a landmark New Jersey Supreme Court order, effective immediately, signifying a historic change in the legal landscape for DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) cases in New Jersey.[1] This order withdraws Guideline 4, a rule that had banned plea agreements in DWI prosecutions, thereby aligning with New Jersey’s amended DWI law, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, enacted on December 21, 2023.

The History of Guideline 4 Prohibiting Plea Bargaining DWI cases in New Jersey

The history of Guideline 4, which prohibited plea bargaining in DWI cases in New Jersey, is rooted in concerns about municipal court abuses dating back to 1974. The ban was initially implemented due to issues attributed to the part-time nature and lack of professionalism within municipal courts. Recommendations in the mid-1980s from various judicial and legal entities led to a 1988 experiment allowing plea agreements in municipal court, except for DWI and certain drug offenses, based on the recognition that municipal courts had become more professional, and their conditions had generally improved.

Following the experiment, a Supreme Court committee, considering broad stakeholder input, recommended a permanent plea agreement process with specific exclusions, including exclusions for DWI cases in New Jersey.

The Supreme Court adopted the recommendation on June 29, 1990, and incorporated Guideline 4 as part of Rule 7:4-8. The Rule has been amended multiple times and appears in the Appendix to Part VII of the N.J. Court Rules (“Guidelines for Operation of Plea Agreements in the Municipal Courts of New Jersey).  Guideline 4 read, in part, as follows: “No plea agreements whatsoever will be allowed in driving while under the influence of liquor or drug offenses (N.J.S.A. 39:4-50).”

The Constitutional Challenge to Guideline 4 — State v. Hessen Continued to Prohibit DWI Plea Bargaining in NJ

In 1996, Guideline 4 was challenged in State v. Hessen,[2] based on the argument that it violated the separation of powers in the New Jersey Constitution and impermissibly infringed on prosecutorial discretion. In Hessen the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Guideline 4, asserting its authority to limit plea bargaining in municipal courts as part of its responsibility over the criminal justice system’s administration.

This decision underscored the judiciary’s role in procedural regulation, aligning with the state’s commitment to deter drunk driving and support legislative and executive policies against it.

The 2024 Amendment to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 Allows DWI Plea Bargaining 

The 2024 amendment to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, initiated by S. 3011 (2022), introduced a significant change by authorizing plea agreements in DWI cases upon a prosecutor’s recommendation, thereby overriding any judicial directives.

This legislative change, unanimously passed by the Senate and Assembly and signed into law by the Governor on December 21, 2023, directly conflicted with the existing Guideline 4.  The draft bill, S. 3011 (Second Reprint, June 26, 2023), was specifically amended to state that:  “Notwithstanding any judicial directive to the contrary, upon recommendation by the prosecutor, a plea agreement under this section is authorized under the appropriate factual basis consistent with any other violation of Title 39 of the revised statutes or offense under Title 2C of the New Jersey Statutes.”

This amendment signified a pivotal shift in handling DWI cases in New Jersey, reflecting a legislative intention to allow for more discretion in plea bargaining within the framework of the state’s legal system.  Thus, the text of the new statute and the language of Guideline 4 directly conflicted with one another.

The Court’s Withdrawal of Guideline 4 Opening the Door for Plea Bargaining in DWI Cases in New Jersey

In its February 24, 2024, order, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the new DWI law “effectively directs that ‘any judicial directive’ that contradicts the recent amendment is to be disregarded.   In essence, the law directs that a Court Rule — which the Supreme Court in 1994 held was ‘within the Court’s rule-making authority  over plea-bargaining practice in the courts as contemplated by the Constitution,’ see Hessen, 145 N.J. at 451 — is null and void.”    Thus, the Court found that “there is a genuine question about the constitutionality of the law under the separation of powers doctrine.”  However, the Court did not render a finding on that issue because no actual case challenging Guideline 4 had been filed before the Court.

Instead, in the interest of comity, the Court adopted the statement of policy in the amendment to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 and withdrew Guideline 4.  The Court recognized that the amendment reflected “a policy statement by the Legislature, which is within its prerogative,

related to plea bargaining in municipal courts.”  The withdrawal of Guideline 4 by the New Jersey Supreme Court reflects a significant policy shift, recognizing that new direction on plea bargaining policies in DWI cases.

Navigating New DWI Plea Bargaining: Your Next Steps for Legal Guidance

With the repeal of Guideline 4, we stand at a transformative juncture in the history of New Jersey’s legal system. This significant change heralds a new era of flexibility in DWI case management, where the scales of justice are carefully balanced with the tenets of efficient judicial administration. The allowance of plea agreements in DWI cases is a progressive move toward tailoring justice to each unique situation, ensuring that punishment is meted out with an equitable consideration of all circumstances.

At the Bianchi Law Group, LLC, we understand that navigating the new terrain of DWI plea bargaining can be complex and intimidating. Our team, composed of seasoned former prosecutors, is well-equipped to guide you through this evolving legal landscape. We are committed to offering you the most informed and strategic legal counsel to navigate plea agreements effectively.

If you or someone you know is facing a DWI charge and needs legal advice on proceeding under the new framework, we are here to help. Contact us to explore your legal options and craft a defense strategy that aligns with the latest legal developments. For a comprehensive review of your case and personalized legal assistance, contact the Bianchi Law Group, LLC, at 862-225-1965.

[1] https://www.njcourts.gov/notices/order-withdrawal-of-guideline-4-limitation-guidelines-operation-of-plea-agreements

[2] State v. Hessen, 145 N.J. 441 (1996).