NJ Supreme Court Rules Prior Uncounseled DWI Convictions Can’t Be Used to Enhance Sentence for Subsequent DWI Convictions

In State v. Michael A. Konecny (A-21-20/084880) (Decided April 5, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held a previous uncounseled conviction for driving while intoxicated (DWI) can’t be used to enhance a sentencing scheme for subsequent DWI convictions. The court further holds that a conviction vacated through post-conviction relief (PCR) proceedings can’t serve as a predicate for a Section 26(b) prosecution if the State chooses not to pursue a subsequent prosecution

Facts of State v. Konecny

After two DWI convictions and a conviction for refusal to submit to a breathalyzer test (Refusal) in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.4(a), defendant Michael Konecny’s license was suspended. During that period of license suspension, he was pulled over while driving and charged with DWS.

Defendant pled guilty to DWS, but, before he was sentenced, two different municipal courts granted him Laurick relief on his most recent DWI conviction and on his Refusal conviction, respectively, based on his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The orders specifically noted that the prior convictions could not be used to increase a term of imprisonment for a subsequent DWI or a conviction under Section 26(b) pursuant to the Supreme Court’s holding in Laurick. In State v. Laurick, 120 N.J. 1 (1990), the New Jersey Supreme Court held that prior uncounseled convictions for DWI in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-50 can’t be used to enhance a custodial sentence for a second or subsequent DWI offense.

Notwithstanding the Laurick relief orders that defendant obtained in municipal court, the trial court sentenced defendant to 180 days’ imprisonment for his DWS conviction and held that Laurick relief was limited to sentencing for DWI convictions and did not extend to Section 26(b). On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed defendant’s sentence and agreed with the trial court that Laurick relief is unavailable in a Section 26(b) setting.

NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in State v. Konecny

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the defendant’s sentence. In reaching its decision, the court clarified the scope of Laurick relief.

“We now hold that Laurick relief, and the principles underlying the prohibition against the use of uncounseled DWI convictions, extend to the enhanced sentencing scheme in Section 26(b), and that prior uncounseled convictions cannot be used as predicates to increase a loss of liberty for DWS,” Justice Pierre-Louis wrote. “Furthermore, if a defendant obtains traditional PCR on a prior DWI or Refusal conviction and the State does not pursue a second prosecution, that vacated conviction cannot be used as a predicate in a Section 26(b) prosecution.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the argument that the 180-day sentence prescribed by Section 26 is a mandatory minimum sentence distinct from the enhanced penalties imposed by the DWI statute for multiple convictions. Upon closely reviewing the statutes, the court found “no principled distinction” between the two sentencing schemes. It further found that although the facts of Laurick dealt with DWI convictions, nothing in the opinion limited its right-to-counsel principles to DWI matters. “If a defendant obtains Laurick relief on a prior DWI or Refusal conviction, fairness dictates that the conviction upon which relief was granted cannot be used to increase that defendant’s sentence for DWS to 180 days’ imprisonment,” Justice Pierre-Louis wrote.

Applying the above principles, the New Jersey Supreme Court went on to conclude that the defendant was not entitled to Laurick relief. “In the present case, however, defendant was not entitled to Laurick relief in the first instance because he had counsel during his prior proceedings,” Justice Pierre-Louis wrote. “Laurick is available only to defendants who were without counsel and not advised of their right to counsel during their DWI-related prosecutions. Because defendant had counsel, the municipal courts erred in granting Laurick relief.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court held that a conviction vacated through PCR cannot be used as a predicate for a Section 26(b) prosecution. As Justice Pierre-Louis explained:

We agree that if a conviction is vacated through PCR, and the State does not initiate a second prosecution or the matter is otherwise dismissed, that conviction cannot then serve as a basis for charging a defendant with another offense. Fundamental fairness simply cannot abide such a result. One of the elements of a Section 26(b) prosecution requires that the defendant have two or more convictions for DWI or Refusal. See N.J.S.A. 2:40-26(b). If, at the time of the prosecution, the State cannot establish that element of the offense because one or more of the predicate convictions has been voided through PCR, the prosecution cannot proceed. The State remains free to challenge those who drive while suspended with contempt of the court order prescribing their suspension. But the conviction — unlike the order of suspension — is erased when PCR is granted.

Finally, the New Jersey Supreme Court referred to the Municipal Court Practice Committee an amendment to Rule 7:10-2(g) that would clarify that the Rule is specific to Laurick relief for uncounseled convictions and not traditional PCR. “To avoid confusion regarding the time limitation applicable to traditional PCR with the ability to file a Laurick petition at any time, we ask the Municipal Court Practice Committee to propose an amendment to Rule 7:10-2(g) that would make clear that the relief sought in that section is relief pursuant to this Court’s decision in Laurick only, and not traditional PCR,” Justice Pierre-Louis wrote.

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