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Are DWI laws In New Jersey Tough Enough?

TRENTON – The recent increase in drunken driving related incidents has lead to the discussion whether DWI laws in New Jersey are tough enough or not.

One of the incidents resulted in the death of two grandparents in a head-on collision by 23-year-old Frank Cabezas who was driving drunk. According to police reports, Cabezas was driving on a suspended license from a prior drunk driving charge.

Advocates for drunken driving crash victims, as well as MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), say that these incidents can be avoided. Many drivers continue to drive on New Jersey roads on a suspended license, despite the sanction.

According to a recent report published by MADD, New Jersey ranked among some of the worst states in the nation. Drunken driving victims do not have a lot of protection, and the state was given two out of five stars in the rating.

The director of government and public affairs for the New Jersey chapter of the National Motorists Association, Steve Carrellas, was not in agreement. He said that the drunken driving penalties in NJ were “draconian”, particularly for first-time offenders. However, opponents and those who support drunken driving laws are of the opinion that the system for punishing DWI offenders in New Jersey is not working.

Lawyers who represent offenders facing DWI charges feel that the entire process violates constitutional rights of the individuals facing the charge, and they have to pay heavy fines. However, those who advocate victims say that tougher laws need to be in place to keep repeat offenders off the road. These victim advocates suggested expanding the use of Ignition Interlock Devices.

According to Robert Ramsey, a Hamilton attorney, most repeat offenders in other states will usually face a lengthy prison sentence if they are caught driving under the influence. However, in New Jersey, there are no such laws and the state relies mostly on monetary sanctions for repeat offenders instead of jail time. Therefore, the same offense will hurt their wallet instead of putting them behind bars.

Legal experts are of the opinion that states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin don’t technically categorize the offense as a crime. John Menzel, a New Jersey-based DWI attorney, said that a repeat offender can be imprisoned for two years, even if they are not technically a felon.

In New Jersey, DWI is considered a motor vehicle offense, instead of a criminal offense, and is tried in municipal court. Since the DWI offense is not criminal, the accused driver has no right to a jury trial. A first-time offender in New Jersey will face a driver’s license suspension of anywhere between 3 months up to a year. Some other penalties include up to 30 days imprisonment along with thousands of dollars in fees and surcharges. Repeat offenders face harsher penalties. Any driver facing a third DWI offense can face up to 180 days in jail. This is the maximum allowed under New Jersey laws, although part of the term can be served in a rehab facility by the offender.

In case of other aggravating factors, like injury or death as a result of drunk driving, then the offender faces criminal charges such as assault by auto, aggravated manslaughter, as well as vehicular homicide. The case of James Denelsbeck is currently under consideration by the state Supreme Court. Denelsbeck is facing a mandatory jail term of 180 days along with thousands of dollars in fines, fees and surcharges. He was charged with his fourth DWI violation and is arguing that he has a right to a jury trial.

Menzel is representing Denelsbeck in the case and says, “Over time, as the Legislature made more and more of these penalties, they made it sufficiently serious to trigger the right to a jury trial.”

DWI offenders in New Jersey face heavy fines, fees and surcharges, but they can avoid lengthy prison sentences. Some of the fines, fees and surcharges include an automobile insurance surcharge of $1,000 a year for 3 years, a $100 surcharge for the Drunk Driving Enforcement Fund, an Intoxicated Driving Program fee of $100, a Motor Vehicle Commission restoration fee of $100, a $75 Safe and Secure Community Program fee, and a $50 Violent Crimes Compensation Fund fee, along with some other expenses.

Many state attorneys argued that the fees associated with DWI aren’t punitive. Moreover, although the penalties are serious, they do not evaluate the offense to a crime. Attorneys for the state also opinioned that trying DWI cases before juries will only overburden the state’s court system.

A representative of the National Motorists Association said that the state is “trying to have it both ways.” It is adding “piles upon piles of penalties” on accused drunken drivers but not giving them a right to a jury of their peers.

Use of Ignition Interlock Devices

A report by MADD mentioned three important points regarding DWI laws in New Jersey:

  • The state laws don’t immediately allow the arresting officer to confiscate the offender’s driver’s license
  • The state laws don’t do enough to prevent drunken drivers from refusing sobriety tests
  • The state laws don’t require mandatory installation of Ignition Interlock Devices for all offenders

The program director for MADD’s New Jersey chapter, Brandon English, said that the issue regarding ignition interlock devices is the group’s top priority in the state. A bill was passed by the Legislature last year requiring IID’s to be installed by first-time DWI offenders.

The bill was conditionally vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, calling it “too sweeping, and too lenient.” It was called lenient as it would reduce mandatory license suspensions for first-time offenders to just 10 days from the current three months.

However, some groups supported the group saying that the reduction in jail sentence would allow drunken drivers to stay active in the society. They will be able to drive their kids to school, or go to work, without getting under the influence.

MADD was in agreement with the bill because it allowed first-time offenders to remain on the road with certain restrictions.

News Source: www.NJ.com

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