Officer observations here sufficient for DWI State v Nimbly
STATE OF NEW JERSEY,
Argued November 4, 2019 â€“ Decided November 26, 2019
Before Judges Fasciale and Rothstadt.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law
Division, Morris County, Municipal Appeal No. 18-
(NOTE: The status of this decision is Unpublished.)
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE
APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
This opinion shall not "constitute precedent or be binding upon any court." Although it is posted on the
internet, this opinion is binding only on the parties in the case and its use in other cases is limited. R. 1:36-3.
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
DOCKET NO. A-2333-18T2 Defendant appeals from his February 4, 2019 de novo conviction for
driving while intoxicated (DWI), N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. Defendant argues the State
produced insufficient observation evidence, the judge did not give proper weight
to his expert, and the judge ignored a BMW report depicting maintenance work
done on his car before the incident. We disagree with these contentions and
We reject defendant's contention that there was insufficient evidence to
find defendant guilty of DWI beyond a reasonable doubt. When a defendant
appeals from a conviction entered in municipal court to the Law Division, the
judge is required to conduct a de novo review of the record, giving "due regard
to the municipal judge's opportunity to view the witnesses and assess
credibility." State v. Golin, 363 N.J. Super. 474, 481 (App. Div. 2003) (citing
State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 157 (1964)). On appeal from the Law Division,
we determine whether the judge's findings "could reasonably have been reached
on sufficient credible evidence present in the record." Johnson, 42 N.J. at 162.
We do not "'weigh the evidence, assess the creditability of witnesses, or make
conclusions about the evidence.'" State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 472 (1999)
(quoting State v. Barone, 147 N.J. 599, 615 (1997)). A trial court's legal
conclusions and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not
entitled to special deference; they are reviewed de novo. State v. Goodwin, 224 N.J. 102, 110 (2016).
Defendant drove his car off the roadway, through a split-rail fence, and
then struck a tree, which deployed the airbags and ignited a fire in the car's
engine. An officer arrived at the scene and detected an odor of alcohol from
defendant's breath. The officer observed that defendant's face was flushed, he
had bloodshot eyes, and that he had urinated on himself. Defendant told the
officer that he had two martinis, and the officer administered field sobriety tests,
which defendant failed.
The arresting officer testified credibly for the State. Defendant called two
witnesses: an expert in field sobriety tests and his medical doctor. The field
sobriety expert admitted he did not see the field tests because they were
conducted off camera. His doctor did not attribute defendant's conduct to
anything other than intoxication. Indeed, defendant declined medical attention
at the scene of the accident. Defendant produced no evidence showing the
accident was related to his BMW.
An officerâ€™s subjective observation of a defendant is a sufficient ground
to sustain a DWI conviction. State v. Cryan, 363 N.J. Super. 442, 456-57 (App.
Div. 2003) (sustaining DWI conviction based on observations of the defendantâ€™s
bloodshot eyes, hostility, and strong odor of alcohol); State v. Cleverley, 348 N.J. Super. 455, 465 (App. Div. 2002) (sustaining DWI conviction based on the
officerâ€™s observation of the defendantâ€™s driving without headlights on, inability
to perform field sobriety tests, combativeness, swaying, and detecting an odor
of alcohol on the defendantâ€™s breath); State v. Oliveri, 336 N.J. Super. 244, 251-
52 (App. Div. 2001) (sustaining DWI conviction based on the officerâ€™s
observations of the defendant's watery eyes, slurred and slow speech, staggering,
inability to perform field sobriety tests, and admission to drinking alcohol earlier
in the day).
The officer who administered the tests and arrested defendant testified that
the weather was clear, the pavement was wet, and the temperature was around
forty-degrees. Although defendant told the officer that "he may have hit some
ice" on the road, the officer inspected the pavement and saw no ice. At first,
defendant asserted he had not been drinking heavily, claiming he only had one
or two martinis. However, defendant eventually admitted he drank two martinis.
As to the field sobriety tests, the officer testified:
I asked him to recite the English alphabet out loud so I
can hear him, and without singing. I asked him to start
with the letter E, and end with the letter R.
He started with the letter E, and then began at the
beginning of the alphabet.
The officer instructed defendant "to count on one hand; one, two, three, four,
four, three, two, one" while defendant touched his fingertips together. He
testified that defendant said he understood his instructions. The officer further
On the first cycle[,] [defendant] did not touch his
fingertips together as instructed. He then asked if he
was doing it right, so I demonstrated the test again.
[Defendant] counted one, two, three, four, one, two,
three, four, on the second attempt and did not touch his
[On his final attempt, defendant] counted again, one,
two, three, four, one, two, three, four, instead of one,
two, three, four, four, three, two, one.
He testified that defendant performed the walk-and-turn test on flat
pavement that was clear of debris. The officer said that there were no street
lights present; only the officer's car's headlights and flashlight. He provided
defendant with instructions:
I advised [defendant] to stand with his left foot on a
line, we were using the fog line, I believe. With his
right foot in front of his left foot, with the heel of his
right foot touching the toe of his left foot, to keep his
hands at his side and stay in that position. I instructed
him to take nine heel-to-toe steps; [l]ooking at his feet,
counting his steps out loud, keeping his hands to his
side. After nine steps[,] [I told him to] turn towards his
left in a counterclockwise fashion and then nine more
The officer also said he demonstrated this test for defendant. He concluded that
defendant failed the test, stating:
He did not stand with his heel touching his toe in the
starting position. He did not touch heel-to-toe on the
first nine steps or the back nine steps. He paused in the
middle of the test to ask me a question, and he did not
turn as I instructed him to.
The officer also administered the one-leg stand test, to which he testified:
I told him to stand with his feet together and his hands
at his side while I gave instructions. I told him to lift
either foot, his left foot or his right foot, approximately
six inches off the ground. Extend his foot and look at
his foot, and count out loud 1,001, 1,002, 1,003 until
I told him to stop.
[A]fter the first few seconds[,] [defendant] told me he
couldn't do it.
Defendant stepped off the line, and he was not able to do any of the counting
associated with this test. The officer concluded that defendant failed this test.
He also determined that defendant was under the influence because:
The crash for one, being that he went off the roadway
for no apparent reason. There was no ice. There were
no animals that he had mentioned. The odor of alcohol
on his breath. The fact that he urinated in his pants[,]
and his performance on the field sobriety tests.
Based on the above information, defendant's statement that he consumed two
martinis before driving, and the officer's observation that defendant had blood
shot eyes and a flushed face, the officer arrested defendant for DWI.
The Law Division judge deferred to the Municipal Court judge's
credibility findings. He made his own factual findings that the weather was
clear, the pavement was wet, traffic was light, defendant's eyes were blood shot,
his face was flushed, he urinated in his pants, he admitted to drinking two
martinis, and that his breath smelled of alcohol. Further, after considering the
testimony from defendant's doctor, the judge found that no injury impaired
defendant's lower extremities and cognitive abilities. Moreover, the judge found
defendant failed several field sobriety tests.
We also reject defendant's contention that the judge failed to give any
weight to his expertâ€™s testimony or the BMW report. We review a trial courtâ€™s
evidentiary determinations for an abuse of discretion. State v. Buda, 195 N.J.
278, 294 (2008). An abuse of discretion only arises when there is a "manifest
error or injustice." Hisenaj v. Kuehner, 194 N.J. 6, 20 (2008) (citation omitted).
Such an error occurs when a judgeâ€™s "decision [was] made without a rational
explanation, inexplicably departed from established policies, or rested on an
impermissible basis." United States v. Scurry, 193 N.J. 492, 504 (2008)
(alteration in original) (citation omitted).
Defendant called Mr. Joseph Tafuni as an expert in DWI investigations.
The expert opined that the one-leg stand and walk-and-turn tests' reliability was
compromised due to defendant's age, the fact that the roadway was wet, and the
officer's insufficient instructions for the tests. Relating to defendant's age, the
expert stated that "[the walk-and-turn and one-leg stand tests were] researched
[by] the NHTSA[, which] indicates individuals who are [sixty-five] years of age
and above would have difficulty performing [these tests]." As to the walk-and-
turn instructions, he stated:
I noted that the officer did not use [a] line. It's required
for police officers to use a real [line] whether it be a
real line or an imaginary line. That's the focal point for
a suspect. The officer did not tell [defendant] to
maintain a starting position, which is the . . . left foot
on a line, which was not use[d], heel of the right foot
touching the toe and keeping his arms at his side. He
did not instruct him to maintain that position.
As to the one-leg stand instructions, he testified:
[The officer] skipped the maintain the starting position
. . . . [He] failed to ask [defendant] if he understood the
starting instructions to that point. The [o]fficer failed
to instruct [defendant] to keep both legs straight when
[performing] this test and to keep his arms at his side.
[However,] we were not able to see this officer
demonstrating, nor could we see [defendant]
performing the one-leg stand test[.]
The expert further testified that defendant may have failed because he may have
been distracted by the active scene.
The Law Division judge specifically addressed this expert's testimony,
I have considered [the expert's] testimony and he
pointed out some issues with . . . the standard field
sobriety tests[,] but he conceded that he was obviously
unable to observe the actual execution of the tests, since
they were performed off camera.
[The expert] was also not privy to the first-hand
observations made by [the officer], such as the wetness
of the road, [defendant's] bloodshot eyes, or the scent
of alcohol on [defendant's] breath.
It is clear from the record that the judge considered the expert's testimony. The
judge made specific findings as to why he gave little weight to this testimony.
Finally, the judge analyzed the BMW report and determined that there was
no expert testimony showing a causal connection between the car's condition
and the accident. He therefore ruled out any possibility that a mechanical
difficulty caused the accident. As the judge correctly noted, "[t]here was simply
We conclude that the judge's findings are based on sufficient credible
evidence present in the record and that there exists sufficient credible evidence
demonstrating defendant was guilty of DWI beyond a reasonable doubt.