DWI Defense Law Update: NJ Appellate Court Overturns Decision on Sentencing for Convicted Drunk Drivers

Recently there was an important change to New Jersey drunk driving law affecting the sentencing of motorists convicted of DWI offenses. According to reports, a New Jersey appellate court overturned a decision that had stood as a precedent for the past 17 years. As a New Jersey drunk driving defense lawyer, my aim is to help those accused of driving under the influence of alcohol or prescription drugs get a fair hearing. Changes such as this latest decision will have a great affect on DWI case going forward.

The recent appellate court ruling states that any previous convictions for the violation of New Jersey’s implied consent law must now be considered as prior DWI convictions where drunk driving sentencing is concerned.

The case in question, State v. Ciancaglini, No. A-2785-08T4 (N.J.A.D. 2010), was brought by the state of New Jersey as an appeal to the sentencing of Eileen Ciancaglini, a woman charged with drunk driving back in May 2008 (at that time Ciancaglini blew a 0.17 percent BAC on a breathalyzer).

Ciancaglini had already been convicted of drunk driving in 1979; she was also convicted of refusing a chemical alcohol test in 2006. When she pled guilty to the 2008 DWI charge she was sentenced as a third-time offender by the municipal court (Here in New Jersey, drunk driving defendants have the right to appeal the decisions of municipal courts to New Jersey Superior Court, which is exactly what Ciancaglini did).

In that appeal, the Superior Court used a precedent established in State v. DiSomma, 262 N.J.Super. 375 (N.J.A.D. 1993). In the case, the court found that prior refusal convictions did not count as prior DWI convictions under New Jersey’s DWI sentencing statute, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50. (This law also requires the court that sentences the defendant to discount a conviction so long as it occurred more than 10 years prior to the current conviction.)

It’s not uncommon for individuals to believe that this law means any conviction that was more than 10 years old would not be counted against a defendant, which is exactly how the Superior Court read it. By forcing itself to discount both of Ciancaglini’s prior DWI offenses, the Superior Court re-sentenced the woman as a first-time DWI offender – a sentence that requires a sentence of 30 days in jail.

Unfortunately for Ciancaglini, after her 30 days in jail were up, the state appealed to the Appellate Division, which then overruled the Superior Court and decided that prior refusal convictions, in fact, did count as prior DWIs. In its decision, the appellate court said it overruled DiSomma because none of the reasons the DiSomma court used in its decision were no longer valid.

In the end, the court ordered Ciancaglini to be sentenced as a third-time offender, which carries a jail sentence of up to six months. And although this was truly a disappointment to Ms. Ciancaglini, it’s difficult to say how this latest ruling will affect DWI law going forward.

As it stands now — if only for sentencing purposes — any violation of New Jersey’s implied consent law will be looked at as being a drunk driving conviction. Certainly, those drivers who may have a history of breath test refusal should think long and hard before they drive drunk in the future. One may also consider that prosecutors might be less apt to offer attractive plea bargains in the future.