New Jersey Residents Split on Criminalizing DWI in the Garden State

While the New Jersey’s state police and local PDs run pretty heavy drunken driving patrols from time to time, here in New Jersey the laws on drunken driving treat a DWI as a vehicle violation or civil offense. Unlike other surrounding states, our has yet to criminalize the mere act of driving while intoxicated. Of course, things can get much more involved when property damage or personal injuries are involved, so there is a fine line that a DWI or drug DUI defendant must be aware of.

As New Jersey drunk driving defense lawyers, I and my team of experienced defense attorneys know full well that an arrest for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence is not the same as a conviction. When it comes being convicted of DWI, it would appear that a significant percentage of the public would prefer that even a first-time offender face the same penalties as any criminal. Others feel that lumping convicted DWI offenders in with common criminals is perhaps excessive.

A non-scientific poll conducted by the editors of Patch.com illustrated the divide between those who would criminalize drunken driving offenses and those who feel drivers need at least some leeway, especially when it comes to first-time offenses. Naturally, many people are swayed by the headlines of hundreds and even thousands of innocent people killed by drunken drivers across the nation every year. And as of last May, New Jersey lawmakers have begun to look into the possibility of creating legislation to keep those arrested for repeat DWI off the road at least until their case is heard in a court of law.

Summer is a big time for DWI patrols and enhanced anti-drunken driving enforcement. We know first-hand that numerous citations, summonses and arrests occur as a result of drivers getting behind the wheel after a couple drinks. Whether they are legally drunk is a matter for the court, although some would suggest that if the police claim a driver is impaired by alcohol or prescription drugs, even marijuana or cocaine, then they surely must be.

In the poll put together by Patch editors, the respondents were pretty much divided on whether or not to criminalize DWI. With 51 percent in favor and 48 opposed, it’s certainly a draw as to which way the public would prefer to go on this issue. We know, as DWI defense lawyers, that prohibiting a person who has only been accused of drunk driving from operating a motor vehicle prior to their court hearing can be a significant imposition. We do not make the law, so this issue is for our representatives in Trenton to decide how to address this issue.

From the comments we read, however, there are strong feelings on both sides. One person, who described himself as a retired public safety dispatcher, felt that first-time and perhaps even two-time offenders should be given a little more leeway, unless injuries were involved; something more along the lines of giving the court discretion in sentencing depending on the particular merits of the case.

Essentially, many who do not strictly favor a criminalization of drunken driving feel that if there is no harm to another individual, then the penalties should not be on the level of those for a criminal act. On the flip side, these people would push for criminal penalties for anyone who injured another person as a result of operating a car while impaired. On the whole, this latest episode in the anti-drunken driving campaign will likely result in more laws added to the books and an even greater need to consult a qualified legal professional following a DWI arrest.

Poll: Should New Jersey Criminalize Drunk Driving?, Patch.com, May 25, 2012