FAQ: NJ Drunk Driving Arrests and the Consequences of a DWI Conviction — Part Six

It’s safe to say that here in New Jersey few individuals would have anything pleasant to look forward to given a drunken driving or drug DUI conviction as the end result. Not only does a guilty verdict mean thousands of dollars in court fines, statutory fees and auto insurance premium increases, but the addition an ignition interlock device on one’s vehicle and the possibility of some jail time can be onerous as well.

For those who are considering the services of a drunk driving defense attorney, the time to act is very soon after one is charged with a DWI-DUI offense. It is quite important to find a qualified trial lawyer who has years of experience in defending motorists against charges such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, possession of a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) in a motor vehicle, breath test refusal, and marijuana DUI, among others. But we recommend that a person act swiftly, while choosing carefully, before too much time elapses.

As Garden State DWI defense lawyers, my legal team and I are keenly aware of the anxiety that a drunk driving summons can cause for many otherwise law-abiding people. The best suggestion is to find legal counsel as quickly as is practical so that you allow your defense attorney enough time to prepare a strong case. As long-time DUI-DWI attorneys, my law firm has assisted many individuals accused of impaired driving, such as by alcohol or narcotics. If a driver has been served with a summons and has a pending court hearing, the time to act is now.

Though we in no way condone driving under the influence, we do offer help to those who feel that have been unjustly accused of intoxicated driving. For those who may have questions about DWI and drug DUI legal issues, we are always happy to provide counsel. In the interim, we add this sixth installment to our series of frequently asked questions (FAQs) on the subject of impaired driving and DWI defense.

Q: I’m sure that my blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) was below 0.08 percent, but just in case, I refused to submit to a breathalyzer test. Can I still be convicted for DWI even without any evidence?

A: Because a drunken driving charge is a “per se” violation, if a municipal prosecutor can prove that your BAC level was 0.08 percent or more, then you will be facing an automatic guilty verdict for DWI. Yet even if one had a BAC below 0.08 percent, it is more than possible that a defendant can be convicted of drunk driving based on other evidence. And although this is not a common occurrence, it has been known to happen.

With evidence from the police of failed sobriety field tests, plus the arresting officer’s observations, a prosecutor could prove to the court that you were guilty of DWI. In fact, a police officer’s observations alone can often lead to a conviction. Observed mannerisms and other actions, such as fumbling with your license and insurance documentation; or simply the statement that the patrolman detected the odor of alcohol on your breath can be very damaging evidence in the state’s hands.

Also, if the police discover an open container of some kind of alcoholic beverage inside your vehicle, this too could be key evidence against you. Taken in its totally, a preponderance of other, non-BAC evidence can be sufficient without breathalyzer results to end in a conviction for the defendant even if his BAC levels were below the threshold level of 0.08 percent. All this being said, please keep in mind that breath test refusal has its own set of consequences, but we’ll touch on that next.

Q: If a driver is charged both with drunken driving AND breath test refusal, doesn’t this mean the prosecutor will simply throw out one of the two charges?

A: In a word, No. Under the New Jersey Attorney General Guidelines, municipal prosecutors should not allow defendants in drunken driving cases to plead guilty to DWI and then dismiss a charge of breath test refusal, if it exists. As any experienced drunk driving defense attorney knows, there is no sympathy on the other side of the aisle for those accused of intoxicated driving.

Keep in mind that if one is convicted of both DWI and a refusal charge, the sentences will be served consecutively. What this generally means is that the defendant will first have to serve the sentence accompanying the DWI conviction, after which the refusal sentence will begin. However, if one retains experienced counsel, there may be a chance of having those two sentences run concurrently, which means that a person should be able to have one’s driver’s license reinstated more quickly than otherwise expected.

Q: What are the consequences of being accused of DWI in a school zone?

A: When a defendant is faces charges of drunk driving in a school zone, the fines as well as the length of the time for driver’s license suspension will be doubled if the individual is convicted. DWI in a school zone is a strict liability type of offense. To be exposed to its consequences, New Jersey law states that the drunken driving stop must take place within 1,000 feet of the school zone.

First-time offenders face a license suspension of one to two years. Those convicted of a second-time offense will be looking at a suspension of driving privileges for between two and four years, which for most people is a very serious penalty. Similarly, jail terms and fines are also increased.

It should come as no surprise to the more cynical among us that “DWI in a school zone” charges will often be used by municipal prosecutors as leverage for a conviction. In many instances, the attorney for the state will offer to drop the school zone-related charge in exchange for a straight plea of DWI by the defendant. Also, please note that it is fruitless to argue that school was not in session or otherwise closed at the time of the arrest; the law itself is written in such a way that a driver can still be charged with DWI in a school zone even if the arrest occurred at midnight on New Year’s Eve.