How Does New Jersey’s Blood Alcohol Content Level Affect DWI Sentencing?
In New Jersey, DWI is classified as a traffic offense. By itself, it is never criminal, although it can lead to criminal charges in cases of vehicular assault, vehicular homicide, or child endangerment.
For first offenses of DWI, blood alcohol contact [“BAC”] is a critical factor in setting the extent of punishments to which one is exposed if convicted. BAC affects two aspects of the sentence. One is the driving revocation period, and the other is the ignition interlock requirement. If the court convicts a person based on a breath test result of less than a .10% BAC, or if the court excludes the result and there is no reading but the person still gets convicted based on observational evidence, then that person’s New Jersey driving privilege will be revoked for three months. If the BAC reading is .10% or higher, the revocation period is no less than seven and no more than 12 months. If the BAC reading is a .15% or higher, there is a mandatory alcohol ignition interlock requirement of no less than six months and no more than one year beginning when the revocation ends.
The alcohol ignition interlock statute is poorly written and ambiguous. Some judges interpret the statute to require the interlock not only while you are actually revoked, but during the period of revocation. Other judges do not require the interlock during the period of revocation. That is an issue that is going to ultimately have to be sorted out through appeals if the case ever presents itself. Practically speaking, however, nobody is enforcing the statute to require an interlock during the revocation period.
While BAC is a factor in imposing interlock restrictions it can also be an aggravating or mitigating factor within general sentencing standards established by statute. But there are no gradations as there are in many other states such as simple, aggravated or super aggravated DWI. In New Jersey, there is only one grading for DWI as a traffic offense with well-defined sentencing perimeters.
While aggravating and mitigating simply applies to the range of punishments, the greatest ranges you see are in the context of first offenders. For second offender DUIs, you lose your license for a minimum of two years and a maximum of two years. Jail can be anywhere from a mandatory period between two and 90. But in almost all cases, if a person makes a serious showing of rehabilitative efforts, the judge will generally convert the two-day jail sentence them to 48 hours in an intoxicated driver resource center or “IDRC,” which is not jail but rather a residential program exclusively reserved for people convicted of second offense DWIs.
For third offenders, the fines are what they are. The joke is it is a minimum of 180 days in jail and a maximum of six months. There is very little deviation whether you plead guilty or lose after trial. That is why for most of my DWI defendants, we go to trial if we do not get the right resolution.
How Do You Determine Whether It Is Feasible To Plead Guilty Or Go To Trial In A DWI?
There are many more plea alternatives available when one is charged with a crime. The risk or reward analysis is a lot more complicated for crimes than it is for DWI. For DWI, it is very simple. Either you give me a resolution that makes sense or we go to trial, because if I lose after trial big time, my client is going to end up getting the same sentence as if they went in and pled guilty right away. Unfortunately, I hate to say that most of the defense attorneys that I see–not all, but most–plead their clients “guilty” far too often. I don’t know if they are just too lazy or too afraid to go to trial, but there is way too many DWI guilty pleas in New Jersey as far as I’m concerned, given the minimal differences between minimum and maximum sentences if you lose.
If you are going to hire a lawyer, you don’t want a lawyer who is only going to be holding your hand while you plead guilty; you can do that for free. Your choice in hiring a lawyer on a DUI in New Jersey is this: Do you want to fight? Or do you want to roll over? The bottom line is this: Give us a deal or we go to trial. It is amazing because sometimes prosecutors will go out of their way to find reasons not to try a case. Even though plea bargaining a DWI charge is not legal in New Jersey, prosecutors are still free to amend, downgrade, or even dismiss the charge if they can present on the record that there is a flaw in their case and they cannot prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
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