New Jersey Penalties for Repeat Drunk Driving Offenses Not Always So Harsh

If you have been convicted of a drunk driving offense, you know the penalties for subsequent offenses can be quite stiff in the state of New Jersey. But as they say, “Only time will tell.” And while law enforcement agencies and prosecutors across the Garden State will hold out the threat of harsher penalties for repeat DWI offenders, there is one ray of light through the dark clouds of a recent driving while intoxicated arrest. And that has to do with time.

As a New Jersey drunk driving lawyer, and a former municipal prosecutor, I remind people to check their calendar should they receive a second, third or subsequent drunken driving arrest. It all goes back to a 2008 ruling by New Jersey’s intermediate appeals court. This Appellate Division of the NJ’s Superior Court actually determined when a drunk driving defendant can receive a reduced sentence for a DWI conviction.

As many have read here and in the news, courts typically implement harsher sentences on those individuals who have prior convictions. In the case of DWI convictions, New Jersey law does require stiffer sentencing for repeat drunk driving offenders, versus those convicted of first-time offenses.

However, if time it on your side, you may benefit from New Jersey’s 10-year “step down” rule. This portion of state law requires that courts must show leniency whenever 10 years have passed between DWI convictions. This applies to the time between first and second drunk driving DWI convictions, or between the second and third DWI convictions. Essentially, the law states that the court must treat the defendant as though he or she has one less prior conviction when it comes to determining that person’s sentence for the most recent DWI.

State v. Conroy, which was decided by New Jersey’s Appellate Division in 2008, involved a defendant who had three prior DWI convictions and was facing sentencing for a fourth time. The State argued that the step-down rule should only apply where the defendant has one or two prior convictions, but in cases where there were three prior convictions. The defendant argued that the step-down rule should apply to his case because his first DWI conviction was without an attorney and 10 years had already passed between his third and fourth DWI convictions.

The good news for many folks is that the court agreed with the defendant and decided that it was unfair and against the interests of justice to consider Conroy’s first DWI conviction during sentencing (because he did not have an attorney for that conviction). That left the defendant with two prior convictions for the court to consider during sentencing. When the court applied the 10-year “step down” rule, the defendant was sentenced as though he had only one prior conviction. Thus, although the defendant actually had three prior DWI convictions, he was sentenced as though he only had one prior DWI conviction.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, and the 10-year “step-down” rule may have a limited life. Legislation is currently afoot to abolish the rule. Regardless, this is just one example of why a qualified and experienced New Jersey drunk driving lawyer can help you with a DWI arrest or breath test refusal charge. Do yourself a favor and don’t go into court alone.