More than 20,000 drunken-driving convictions in New Jersey could be in jeopardy after the state's highest court ruled Tuesday that breathalyzer tests used to win those judgments were inadmissible.
The unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court stems from criminal charges brought more than two years ago against a State Police sergeant who was accused of falsifying calibration records on breathalyzer devices that were used in five of New Jersey's 21 counties.
It is unclear how state courts and law enforcement officials will now proceed. The Supreme Court ruling does not automatically expunge all the drunken-driving convictions, but the justices did note that defendants could now seek to challenge their convictions. The decision also raises questions about cases that are still winding their way through the judicial system.
"We lift the stay on all pending cases so that deliberations may commence on whether and how those cases should proceed," the court wrote in its ruling. "For those cases already decided, affected defendants may now seek appropriate relief."
The New Jersey attorney general's office and the state's court administrator did not immediately respond to questions, including whether the ruling could lead to a pile up of defendants seeking to have their convictions tossed out.
The ruling is the latest development in an odd case that began more than two years ago, when Sgt. Marc W. Dennis, whose duties included calibrating breathalyzer devices, was charged with falsely certifying that he had followed the proper calibration procedures.
As a result, the accuracy of the breathalyzer tests cannot be trusted. Dennis, who is no longer working for the State Police, has denied any wrongdoing and he was never found guilty.
After Dennis was indicted in December 2016, the attorney general's office notified court officials that breath samples from 20,667 people taken by machines calibrated by Dennis had been used in driving under the influence cases between 2008 and 2016.
The machines were used in Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Somerset and Union counties.
The legal challenge began when Eileen Cassidy, the defendant in the case that reached the state Supreme Court, learned that the results of her breathalyzer test were among those cited by the attorney general's office. Cassidy, who had originally pleaded guilty in municipal court to driving under the influence based solely on the breathalyzer results, moved to withdraw her guilty plea.
Cassidy has since died, but as part of its ruling Tuesday, the Supreme Court vacated her conviction.