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27 Nov 23

How Motions Work in New Jersey Criminal Trials

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Last Updated on: 5th December 2023, 08:36 pm

How Motions Work in New Jersey Criminal Trials

Motions—they’re a huge part of the legal process, especially in criminal trials. But unless you’re a lawyer, you probably don’t know much about how they work. As a New Jersey criminal defense attorney, I get asked about motions all the time by my clients. They want to understand what’s going on with their case. So in this article, I’ll walk through the basics of how motions work in New Jersey criminal trials, in plain English.

First things first—what is a motion? Essentially, it’s a request made by the defense or prosecution asking the judge to make a decision or take action on something related to the case. Motions can be made at any point during the legal process, from before the trial starts to during the actual trial.

There are sooo many different types of motions out there. But some of the most common ones in criminal trials are:

  • Motions to suppress evidence – This asks the judge to prohibit certain evidence from being presented at trial. Usually it’s because the evidence was supposedly obtained illegally, in violation of the defendant’s rights.
  • Motions in limine – These ask the judge to exclude certain evidence or testimony before the trial begins. It’s basically a sneak peek at what evidence the other side plans to present.
  • Motions to dismiss – This asks the judge to dismiss the charges against the defendant. The defense will argue that there’s just no case against their client for whatever reason.
  • Motions for a change of venue – If there’s been a ton of pretrial publicity, the defense might argue that the defendant can’t get a fair trial in that area. This motion asks to move the trial location.
  • Motions for continuance – This asks the judge to postpone or delay the trial. For example if the defense says they need more time to prepare.
  • Motions for judgment of acquittal – After the prosecution rests their case, the defense can argue there wasn’t even enough evidence to support a conviction. This motion asks the judge to just acquit the defendant.

When are motions made?

The timing varies depending on the type of motion. Some must be made before the trial starts, some mid-trial, and some after the prosecution rests their case. There are strict deadlines though—the defense can’t just spring a motion on the court whenever they feel like it.

In general, motions to suppress evidence or dismiss the charges have to be made before the trial. Motions dealing with evidence or witnesses are usually made right before trial. And motions for acquittal or a mistrial can happen during the trial itself.

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How does the process work?

Here’s the basic play-by-play for how motions work in criminal trials:

  1. The defense (or sometimes the prosecution) will file the motion and any supporting documents with the court. This usually includes a memorandum of law explaining the legal basis for the motion.
  2. The other side gets a chance to file a response, arguing why the motion should be denied. More documents and memos ensue.
  3. The judge will usually hold a hearing, where both sides make oral arguments about the motion. Witnesses or experts might be called to testify.
  4. The judge then decides—either granting or denying the motion. Some motions the judge can rule on right away. Others require thoughtful legal analysis so the judge will take time before issuing a written decision.
  5. If the motion is denied, the moving party can sometimes appeal that ruling after the trial. But during the trial itself, the judge’s word is final.

This might sound straightforward in theory. But in practice, the motion process can be complex and messy. Both sides are constantly strategizing about what motions to file, when to file them, and how to argue their case. It’s like a game of 4D chess between the attorneys.

What’s the point of filing motions?

Motions are a chance for the defense to test the prosecution’s case before trial. They let the defense tackle potential issues head on, instead of waiting until trial.

Successful motions can majorly bolster the defense’s case. For example, getting certain evidence thrown out before trial starts. Or having additional charges dropped because the prosecution’s case is shaky. Even if a motion gets denied, the defense might glean nuggets of insight into the prosecution’s strategy.

But motions are never guaranteed to work. The judge may end up denying the majority of motions in a given case. Still, it’s usually worth trying to file strategic motions that could strengthen the defense’s position at trial.

What are some key motions in New Jersey criminal trials?

There are a few motions that come up a lot in New Jersey criminal cases. Here’s a quick rundown:

Motion to Suppress Evidence – This tries to get evidence excluded that was supposedly obtained illegally. Like if the police conducted an unconstitutional search. In NJ, some common grounds are arguing the police lacked probable cause for a warrant or to stop/search the defendant.

Motion to Suppress Statement – When the police interrogate an accused person without reading them their rights per Miranda v. Arizona, the defense can argue any confession should be excluded from trial.

Motion to Sever Charges – If a defendant is facing multiple charges, their lawyer may argue trying them together would be overly prejudicial. This asks the judge to sever the trial into two separate ones.

Motion for Discovery – This asks the prosecution to turn over all the evidence, witness statements, investigation documents etc. related to the case. It’s a routine motion so the defense has time to prep for trial.

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Motion for Change of Venue – If the case has received extensive media coverage in that area, the defense may argue for moving the trial location to ensure an impartial jury.

Motion to Exclude Certain Evidence – The defense will often move to exclude evidence that’s irrelevant, overly prejudicial, improper expert testimony, etc. This is called making a motion in limine.

Motion to Suppress Identification – If the police lineup or photo array process was suggestive, the defense can try to exclude any questionable ID by the victim or witness.

Motion to Dismiss – As a Hail Mary, the defense may argue the charges should be dismissed entirely due to lack of evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, speedy trial violations, etc.

What’s the deal with evidentiary hearings?

Many motions require an evidentiary hearing before the judge can decide. This is a mini-trial where both sides present evidence and argue their case.

Common motions requiring hearings are ones to suppress evidence or statements. The judge needs to hear testimony from the arresting officers, detectives, and forensic experts to assess whether the evidence was lawfully obtained.

Defendants sometimes have to testify at hearings about alleged Miranda violations during interrogation. The hearing lets the judge fully evaluate the circumstances before determining if the defendant’s rights were violated.

Evidentiary hearings involve lots of strategic preparation and questioning of witnesses by the attorneys. They can sometimes get just as intense as an actual trial!

How can motions impact the outcome?

Successful motions often mark a major turning point in a criminal case. Even one granted motion can massively bolster the defense’s chances at trial or push the prosecution to offer a plea deal.

Some examples of motions that could change the game:

  • Suppressing key evidence like drugs, weapons, or DNA. This cripples the prosecution’s case.
  • Suppressing the defendant’s confession or incriminating statements. This deprives the prosecution of a slam dunk.
  • Excluding eyewitness identifications as unreliable. Now the prosecution has no one to point the finger at the defendant in court.
  • Severing serious charges from more minor ones. This avoids prejudicing the jury.
  • Changing the trial venue due to publicity. Makes it less likely to draw a biased jury.
  • Dismissing one or more of the charges against the defendant due to lack of evidence. Puts pressure on the prosecution.

Of course, motions get denied all the time too. But skilled defense lawyers use motions strategically to lay the groundwork for arguments at trial. Losing a motion battle doesn’t mean losing the war.

The takeaway

Motions have the power to radically shape a criminal case. The defense tries to use motions to knock out incriminating evidence, get charges dropped, or set up a stronger case theory before trial. Prosecutors oppose most defense motions, but losing certain motions could tank their case. Judges have the final say in resolving these motions disputes. It’s just one of many steps along the winding road of the criminal justice system.