NJ Legal Defense News: Penn. State Supreme Court Overturns Challenge to Ignition Interlock Law

In many states, the Garden State included, ignition interlocks can be ordered installed in vehicles used by convicted drunken driving offenders as a way of keeping intoxicated drivers off the road. While some people oppose these types of laws, traffic safety and anti-drunk driving supporters maintain that mandatory ignition interlocks are a good thing.

As New Jersey DWI defense lawyers, my staff is well aware of the fines and penalties associated with a drunk driving conviction. In addition to court fees and punitive fines, motorists charged with driving while intoxicated by alcohol or prescription drugs (drug DUI) can also end up paying inflated car insurance premiums and even face jail time for multiple offenses.

One of the legal judgments that can come down from the bench following a DWI conviction is the mandatory installation of an ignition interlock onto a convicted drunk driver’s vehicle. The types of devices are designed to prevent the starting of a vehicle if the operator has a blood-alcohol content (BAC) exceeding a certain value. Akin to a mini breathalyzer, an ignition interlock device will disable a car or truck’s starting system if the unit detects alcohol on the driver’s breath.

A short time ago, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court overturned a ruling that resulted from a legal challenge to that state’s law regarding the use of ignition interlock devices. Based on news reports, the ruling not only closed a loophole in state law, it also clarified the application of ignition interlocks in DWI cases.

The Court’s action shut the door on a reported legal loophole that had the potential to allow certain repeat drunk driver offenders sidestep the installation of an interlock ignition device on their vehicles as a condition of restoring those individuals’ driving privileges.

Based on news articles, by issuing its ruling, that state’s highest court effectively resolved an ongoing question of whether an individual’s entry into the state’s first-time offenders program equated to a conviction that would trigger the state law requiring installation of an interlock ignition on the defendant’s vehicle.

That state’s Supreme Court ruling overturned a lower court decision in a case brought by a motorist who had challenged a state DOT directive requiring him to have an ignition interlock device as a condition of having his driver’s license restored.

Many legal experts and likely most state prosecutors believe that the ruling will have a fairly significant impact across the state, since it will help to ensure that repeat DWI offenders cannot dodge the ignition interlock law, which was conceived of to protect the driving public.

Apparently at issue was a civil statute that requires any motorist who has been convicted of two or more DWIs within a 10-year period to have an ignition interlock device installed in his or her vehicle as a condition of restoring their driving privileges.

The particular case involved a man who was charged with his second DWI offense in 2007. Reportedly resolved in 2009 without a conviction, the man reportedly agreed to enter a rehabilitation program in order to have his record expunged following successfully complete a probation period.

The motorist argued that he should not be subject to the state’s ignition interlock law because he was technically not convicted of a DWI following the 2009 resolution of his case. Although a county court ruled in the man’s favor, which was again upheld by a state court, the Supreme Court did not agree.

While the Supreme Court did agree that acceptance of participation in the state’s rehab program was not strictly considered a conviction, the Court did note that accepting rehab as a condition of resolution to a DWI charge has been found in the past to be equivalent to a conviction — under certain circumstances — including that of being used for purposes of computing total number of sentences for subsequent convictions.

According to the Court, a person who agrees to enter into an alcohol abuse rehab program as a condition of resolving a drunken driving charge in essence acknowledges that they committed the offense in the first place; this is regardless of whether or not participating in a rehab program technically constitutes a conviction.

Closing of DUI loophole draws applause, TimesLeader.com, November 29, 2011

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