NJ Supreme Court Says No to Using Breathlyzer Refusal Convictions as Proof of Prior Drunken Driving

A 2009 appellate decision that looked to be a potential problem for individuals convicted of breath test refusal in New Jersey was reversed by the NJ Supreme Court earlier this year. Depending on the circumstances, a motorist who is pulled over for a traffic infraction can end up being cited for driving under the influence of alcohol. But, as many people already know, being arrested for drunken driving can also include a charge of breath test refusal if the motorist declines to provide a breath sample.

If the arresting officer suspects that the driver is drunk due to beer, wine or hard liquor consumption, he may request that the suspect take a breathalyzer test, also known as an Alcotest. As New Jersey DWI defense lawyers, I and my colleagues are certified in the maintenance and operation of the Alcotest device, which allows us to better argue the limitations of this machine and errors that can occur durin its use.

Should a driver refuse to take a breath test, or blood test, used by police to measure blood-alcohol content (BAC), the officer in charge is within his right to charge that person with breath test refusal. This has been a common course of action when a driver has chosen not to be tested. Until recently, the courts have not been allowed to treat refusal convictions as full-blown DWI convictions when considering a repeat driving while intoxicated offense. However the appellate case reviewed by the NJ Supreme Court had threatened to change all that.

According to court records, in the case of STATE v. CIANCAGLINI, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously rejected the appellate court ruling that would have turned previous breath-test refusals into proof of prior drunken driving. Had the Supreme Court not rejected that earlier ruling, it could have meant that hundreds, and maybe thousands of motorists who had previously been convicted of refusing to take a breathalyzer test in New Jersey would have found they had what amounted to the equivalent of a prior drunken driving conviction on their record.

This would have had serious consequences for any individual arrested and charged with a subsequent DWI in that it would essentially be a repeat drunken driving offense, which carries with it greater fines and penalties. However, because the NJ Supreme Court overturned the previous 2010 decision of the New Jersey Appellate Division, a previous refusal conviction cannot be used as proof of a prior DWI conviction.

In its decision, the Court stated that penal statutes must be strictly construed — more specifically that a driver could be found guilty of breath test refusal while at the same time not being guilty drunken driving based on other evidence of intoxication. As is usually the case, close examination of statutory law is critical when assessing the intent of most any legislation, especially as it applies to protecting the rights of citizens.

The Court made its decision based on the particular absence of any explicit references to the refusal statute in New Jersey’s “prior-violation” statute. Comments from the bench also included reference to the state legislature, in that if lawmakers feel that that the NJ Supreme Court’s decision runs counter to the legislature’s original intent, it should be resolved by that body through the updating of statutory language.