The legal treatment of driving while intoxicated (DWI) varies from one state to another, with some states categorizing it as a criminal offense and others, including New Jersey, calling it a traffic or motor vehicle offense. Several recent media reports have questioned whether New Jersey’s DWI laws are “tough enough,” pointing to the risks allegedly posed by repeat offenders. The New Jersey Legislature has revised and amended the DWI statute many times, and several bills are currently pending that would increase some penalties and reduce others. A key question to consider when discussing the “toughness” of DWI laws is whether the purpose of these laws is to punish people who violate the law, prevent people from violating the law in the future, or some combination of the two. This particular dispute is at least as old as the legal system itself.
Every state defines DWI, in part, as driving with blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. The differences between treating DWI as a criminal or traffic offense include the procedures courts must follow at trial, and the possible punishments resulting from a conviction. A DWI conviction in New Jersey, by itself, results in license suspension and a fine, as well as the possibility of jail time. A first-time offender with BAC of at least 0.15 percent must also install an ignition interlock device (IID) in their vehicle, both during and after the period of suspension. Second, third, and subsequent offenses also carry greater possible penalties, up to a maximum fine of $1,000, license suspension of ten years, and 180 days in jail.
In states where DWI is considered a criminal offense, penalties may be greater than in New Jersey, in terms of fine amount and length of jail sentence. The specific code section dealing with DWI in New Jersey, however, is not the only one involved in DWI enforcement. The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Code includes provisions penalizing drivers for refusing to submit to breath testing and for driving with a suspended license, as well as for circumstances like DWI with a minor passenger in the vehicle.