In State v. Deje M. Coviello (A-54-21/086673) (Decided January 19, 2023), the Supreme Court of New Jersey clarified which forum should decide whether a defendant should be relieved of the requirement to install an ignition interlock device (IID). The court held that the sentencing court, and not the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC), has the appropriate jurisdiction over defendant’s motion for sentencing credit concerning the IID requirement.
Facts of State v. Coviello
In September 2013, defendant Deje M. Coviello was found unconscious in the driver’s seat of a parked car with the engine running and with several open containers of alcoholic beverages on the passenger seat. She was arrested and pled guilty to disorderly conduct and driving while intoxicated (DWI).
The defendant’s DWI conviction was her second. It included a two-year period of driver’s license forfeiture, as well as a two-year period of breath alcohol IID installation to commence after completion of the license forfeiture. Defendant never installed an IID, maintaining she did not do so because she could not afford to buy or lease a car and had no access to drive another person’s vehicle.
Nearly five years after her sentencing, in January 2019, defendant moved before the Criminal Part for a credit on her sentence pursuant to Rule 7:9-4. At such time, defendant had fulfilled her entire sentence, including the two-year period of license revocation, except for the IID installation requirement. In her motion, defendant certified that since the date she surrendered her driver’s license for revocation in 2014, she had not owned, leased, or operated a motor vehicle in which an IID could have been installed. Her motion sought to have the court deem her sentence completed, so that she could apply for a driver’s license with the MVC.
The Criminal Part judge denied her motion, finding that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear defendant’s application for relief from the IID requirement and that the MVC was the appropriate forum in which to seek that sentencing relief. The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that defendant’s requested modification of the IID requirement was not “a sentencing issue,” but rather an “administrative” matter for the MVC.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Coviello
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. It held that the sentencing court, and not the MVC, has the appropriate jurisdiction over defendant’s motion for sentencing credit concerning the IID requirement. “That conclusion is supported by well-established sentencing principles and the text and structure of the drunk driving statutes,” Judge Sabatino wrote.
In reversing the lower court, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that sentencing is a core function of the Judiciary. In contrast, administrative agencies in the Executive Branch are tasked with ensuring that the terms of sentence imposed by the courts are carried out.
The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to conclude that the nature of the defendant’s request concerning her sentence inherently called for a judicial determination. “Fundamentally, defendant is seeking a declaratory ruling that the years she lacked access to a vehicle, and was thus unable to install an IID, justify up to an equivalent period of relief from her sentence,” Judge Sabatino explained. “Courts are well equipped to render declaratory rulings that involve such matters of status under the law.”
In further support of its decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court cited the MVC’s legal position, as articulated by the Attorney General, that it lacks jurisdiction to hear defendant’s motion. According to the Attorney General, the MVC’s function is “ministerial in nature,” when determining whether defendants have completed all of the steps necessary to have their licenses restored in compliance with the court’s sentence. The New Jersey Supreme Court only addressed the jurisdictional issue. Accordingly, it remanded the case back to the sentencing court to consider the merits of the defendant’s motion.