Major changes to N.J. drunk driving law reach Christie’s desk

Submitted by New Jersey DWI Attorney, Jeffrey Hark

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John Ruocco, Chief Executive of Interceptor Ignition Interlocks, does a demo of the device called the Interceptor by blowing into a breathalyzer in this 2010 file photo. (Jennifer Brown/The Star-Ledger)
TRENTON — A proposed law to drastically change the way New Jersey punishes drunken drivers has hit Gov. Chris Christie’s desk.

The bill, which passed the state Senate 29-4 today after passing the Assembly in June, would allow most drivers convicted of drunken driving for the first time to reduce their license suspensions from the current three to seven months to just 10 days.

But there’s a big catch: The drivers would need to install ignition interlock devices that would not let them drive if drunk, something currently only required of first-time offenders with especially high blood alcohol levels.

“I’ve personally prosecuted people who have been suspended for drunk driving and they walked out to their car and drove home,” said state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who also works as a municipal prosecutor.

The legislation has been promoted extensively by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which said that Oregon, Arizona, Louisiana, and New Mexico saw drunk driving-related fatalities fall by 30 percent after putting similar laws in place. Twenty-four states require the devices for all offenders, according to MADD.

“The long and short of it is it’s going to save lives,” said the group’s New Jersey director, Brandon English.

Although the bill passed by a wide margin, it had opposition.

While testifying on the bill before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in May, Dan Phillips – the legislative liaison for the Administrative Office of the Courts – raised several “problematic” issues.

For instance, Phillips said that the bill only requires the device on one vehicle for first offenders, doing nothing to stop them from driving another car drunk. It would also require judges to “go through a long analysis” like they do in criminal trials as to whether the device should be installed or whether their licenses should just be suspended.

“It just complicates DWI hearings. It lengthens them,” Phillips said.

Bob Ramsey, an attorney who publishes an annual handbook on the state’s drunken driving law, also took issue with the legislation today.

“I’m always concerned about the cost associated with this. And also the fact that other family members who drive the vehicle are also going to have to participate with the interlock device and blow into it even though they didn’t do anything wrong,” he told NJ Advance Media.

Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said the bill “will receive careful review in the 45 days prior to the deadline for action.”

Offenders would have to pay for their own interlock devices, which cost about $100 per month. Those found indigent by the courts could get them paid for by a fund paid for by other users.

The Office of Legislative Services estimated that the bill would cost the state money, but could not determine how much.

Under the legislation (A1368), offenders caught driving with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent to .10 percent would have to install the devices for three months. If the device detects that an offender attempted to drive drunk during the third month, he would have to keep the device installed for an extra month.

A driver with blood alcohol content of .10 percent to .15 percent would have to install the devices for seven months to one year.

Those convicted of driving with a blood alcohol content of higher than .15 percent are already required to install the device both during their suspension and for six months to one year after its restoration. But under the bill, they would be able to petition the court to reinstate their license after 90 days, providing they have installed the device and keep it on for 7sevn months to a year after the restoration.

The bill would only apply to those who own or lease a “primary” vehicle. Offenders who don’t would still face long license suspensions. And judges could still order suspensions for an offender based on several mitigating factors, including his conduct, driving record, age and length of time as a licensed driver, “character and attitude” and any factor the judge considers relevant.

The bill also increases penalties for second-time offenders. Instead of the current two-year suspension, judges could order licenses suspended for two to four years.

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Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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