Mandatory Ignition Interlock Devices: Are They Really that Burdensome for Convicted Drunken Drivers?

Arguments for and against mandatory ignition interlock devices, or IIDs as they are sometimes called, have been going on for years. Whether these devices, or the threat of having them installed on one’s car or truck, can be beneficial to public safety; or even if they provide sufficient deterrent against repeat DWIs is certainly a subject that has fueled hot debate in the area of drunk driving law. As New Jersey DWI and drug DUI defense lawyers, we can understand both sides of the argument.

But even as the question of effectiveness lingers regarding the use of court-ordered ignition interlock devices, a future where the law requires every motorist convicted of DWI in the Garden State to have an IID installed has made for lively discussion. In fact, just like New Jersey, many states have already adopted IIDs as a way to combat recidivist DWIs. The approach to making them mandatory for first-time offenders has also taken hold.

For anyone still unaware of what the use of these devices is supposed to accomplish, the goal is to stop newly convicted drunk drivers from taking the road in an intoxicated state by making sure that a person who has consumed alcohol recently cannot start his or her car. To do this, and IID features a handheld breath-alcohol tester tied to an electronic control unit that either allows the vehicle to be started or prevents ignition based on a predetermined blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) threshold.

According to many safety advocates, the idea behind IIDs is to prevent recently convicted individuals from getting behind the wheel of a potentially lethal weapon if they have had even a little bit to drink. Not only do these devices prevent a potentially drunk driver from starting a car and driving it while intoxicated, they can also require the motorist to submit additional breath tests once they have hit the road, just to ensure that the individual hasn’t imbibed during his or her trip.

The debate on these IIDs comes from both sides of the aisle. For some, New Jersey’s legislature has apparently been too accommodating to future convicted DWI offenders by crafting changes to DWI law that would require just a brief 10-day license suspension period, while adding a requirement for immediate and mandatory installation of an IID following a guilty verdict. Others who support revisions to our state’s drunk driving statutes say that the law currently on the books imposes too severe of a penalty; namely, many months of license suspension that can lead to loss of employment and other consequences — all of which can be rather onerous, particularly on first-time DWI offenders.

Some opponents of the proposed changes to DWI law say that it is simply a bad idea to lighten any penalties involving license suspension for first-time DWI drunken drivers. For those individuals who are found guilty of DWI, a mandatory license suspension can range from three months to as much as a year depending on how much the defendant’s BAC exceeded the legal limit of 0.08 percent. For example, if a driver’s BAC is 0.15 percent or more, he will lose his driving privileges for a minimum of seven months, followed by the mandatory installation of an IID. At their discretion, judges can also order an IID for lower BACs as well.

One iteration of the proposed new law would allow judges to waive the 10-day suspension period for first-time offenders if the defendant can show the court that he or she already has an IID installed at the time of sentencing. Opponents of the proposed changes argue that this gives convicted drunken drivers more or less of a pass, allowing them to go on their way without ever losing their driving privileges. Detractors believe that it is a mistake to eliminate mandatory license suspensions, and they ask whether it actually takes away the deterrent for first offenders, that of providing a severe primary punishment for DWI.

On the other hand, supporters of the change hold that license suspension in and of itself does not necessarily prevent a convicted drunken driver from operating a car, either drunk or sober. But they argue that mandatory installation of an IID provides a more effective deterrent against actual drunk driving.

This camp typically contends that many first-time DWI offenders have simply made a stupid, albeit serious, mistake. Many proponents believe that most first-time drunk driving offenders will, in fact, never do the same thing again. Therefore, suspending a convicted first-time offender’s license, even for a few months as is currently possible, could result in financial difficulties and worse consequences later on. Some of the downside to this rather severe kind of license suspension can include the inability to hold one’s job, nix plans to apply for a mortgage or credit cards, even cause a default on one’s student loan — all because of a one-time error in judgment.

Needless to say, those who support a revision in New Jersey’s DWI law may find that their arguments carry the day. Only time will tell, but the there is much to be said about considering more reasonable first-time DWI penalties and stop treating every drunken driving violation with a one-size-fits-all approach to punishment.

First DWI need not be end of the world: Letter; NJ.com, April 8, 2014