Drunken driving cases need not be tried according to a strict time line to protect the defendant’s constitutional rights, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on Monday.

The court left in place a decades-old test that determines speedy-trial violations on a case-by-case basis, rejecting requests by the American Civil Liberties Union-New Jersey and the State Bar Association to modify or abandon it.

"We determine … that we should not adopt an inflexible try-or-dismiss rule," the court said in State v. Cahill, A-47-11. "We also hesitate to suggest even an aspirational goal, as goals have a tendency to evolve over time into rules."

That said, the justices upheld dismissal of a DWI case for which trial had been delayed for 16 months.

On Oct. 27, 2007, Michael Cahill, who had been drinking at a Pennsauken bar, swerved to avoid a blocked lane of traffic and struck a police car, injuring the officer at the wheel. He pleaded guilty in Superior Court to assault by auto and was sentenced on Nov. 14, 2008, to a year of probation. The same day, DWI and other traffic charges were remanded to the municipal court, and the Camden County prosecutor notified that court by letter.

Cahill heard nothing until March 17, 2010, when he received a letter notifying him that the charges were scheduled for trial the following month. He retained counsel and moved to dismiss, claiming the delay violated his right to a speedy trial. The delay limited his job search to positions that would not require driving and paid less, he said.

Municipal Court Judge Steven Petrillo denied the motion, attributing the delay to negligence by court administrators or the county prosecutor’s office. Cahill entered a conditional guilty plea.

On appeal, Camden County Superior Court Judge Anthony Pugliese reversed, based on Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972), which established four nonexclusive factors to determine violations of the right to a speedy trial: the length of the delay, the reason, any prejudice and assertion of the right by the defendant. He also cited a 1984 directive from Chief Justice Robert Wilentz recommending a 60-day maximum for disposition of drunken-driving cases.

Appellate Division Judges Ariel Rodriguez and Laura LeWinn affirmed, finding Pugliese properly analyzed the Barker factors.

On Monday, the Supreme Court, led by Judge Mary Catherine Cuff, temporarily assigned, said the delay weighed against the state, finding Cahill’s failure to inquire about the charges was inconsequential because a defendant "does not … have the obligation to bring himself to trial."

Prosecutors suggested that the municipal court clerk lost or misplaced the November 2008 letter, but ultimately gave no explanation for the delay, Cuff said.

Cuff added that a speedy trial violation can be established without prejudice but acknowledged there was at least "some measure of anxiety by the existence of a pending and long-unresolved charge."

The NJSBA urged abandonment of two of the Barker factors — those related to the defendant’s assertion of the right and prejudice — but the court declined. The ACLU-NJ asked the court to establish a specific time line for speedy trial, as 32 states have done via statute or court rule.

Courts in jurisdictions that have implemented a hard time line still use the Barker analysis, Cuff noted.

Also, New Jersey courts are governed by rules requiring prompt disposition of criminal charges and a more recent directive, No. 04-11, from July 12, 2011, which instructs Superior Court judges to dispose of all parts of a case, including municipal court matters, absent "some compelling reason otherwise," Cuff said.

"To be sure, on occasion, a case-by-case analysis rather than a bright-line time limitation may lead to seemingly disparate results," Cuff noted, citing a dismissal that occurred after three months of delay and a 32-month delay that was held justifiable. She said that disposition times "should bear some relation to the nature of the offense and of the evidence required."

Cahill’s appellate counsel, Marissa Costello, says she’s "a little surprised that they didn’t go further, but pleasantly surprised."

"We have a good framework," says Costello, of Costello & Whitmore in Marlton. "A bright-line rule doesn’t take into account different variations to the facts."

ACLU-NJ policy counsel Alexander Shalom, who argued on behalf of the organization, says he hoped for more meaningful "concrete guidance" rather than a continuation of the "piecemeal approach." "We think speedy trial protections bring us closer to our goal of equal justice," Shalom says.

Jeffrey Gold, who argued for the NJSBA and once headed its Municipal Practice Section, says Barker "has kind of become a litmus test, but really didn’t set out that way." More factors means more discretion by municipal court judges, and "discretion, in our view, sometimes leads to disparate results," says Gold, who heads a Cherry Hill firm.

The decision is "not as far as we’d like them to go, but it would’ve been a disaster if they reversed," Gold adds.

Assistant Camden County Prosecutor Jason Magid says the reaffirmation of the Barker test “was what the state was looking for,” although he says Cahill shouldn’t have received the benefit of it, given his failure to assert his speedy-trial right and the lack of any real prejudice to him from the delay.