Courts Rule on Mandatory Sentencing in Certain New Jersey DWLS Cases that Involve DWI Charges

By Ctruongngoc (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsA conviction of driving while intoxicated (DWI) or refusal to submit to breath testing in New Jersey almost always results in a suspension of the defendant’s driver’s license. New Jersey traffic law also prohibits driving without a license or driving while license suspended (DWLS). As “traffic offenses,” most DWI and DWLS cases are not “criminal” cases. For individuals with one or more prior DWI or refusal convictions, however, prosecutors could bring a criminal DWLS charge under certain circumstances. A conviction of criminal DWLS results in a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 180 days, and New Jersey courts have recently considered whether courts may allow alternatives to jail time, or if they can stay a jail sentence pending appeal. The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division recently issued two decisions that build on earlier decisions holding that jail time is mandatory for this offense.

A first-time DWLS conviction has a maximum $500 fine and, if the license suspension was due to a DWI or refusal conviction, a revocation of the driver’s vehicle registration. A third or subsequent offense could lead to a 10-day jail sentence. DWLS becomes a criminal offense, instead of a traffic offense, in two situations:

1. The defendant has a prior DWLS conviction, which occurred during a license suspension resulting from a first DWI or refusal conviction; or
2. The defendant’s license is suspended for a second or subsequent DWI or refusal conviction.

New Jersey law makes DWLS under these circumstances a crime of the fourth degree, which is normally punishable by a sentence of imprisonment that may not exceed 18 months. The criminal DWLS statute, however, specifically states that this offense carries a “fixed minimum sentence” of 180 days without parole. The Appellate Division’s 2014 ruling in State v. French held that the statute requires 180 days of jail time, as opposed to an inpatient drug treatment facility.

In State v. Harris, the Appellate Division considered the state’s appeal of five DWLS cases in which municipal courts imposed sentences that, prosecutors claimed, did not fit the 180-day jail sentence requirement. The defendants in each case pleaded guilty. The sentences included alternatives to jail time, including a house arrest program known as the Home Electronic Detention System (HEDS) and a work program known as the County Supplemental Labor Service Program (CSLS). HEDS requires a person to wear an electronic device that allows authorities to monitor their location. In CSLS, a person must report to a designated location every day to be sent to a work site and may then return home. Citing French, the Appellate Division found that these sentences did not meet the statute’s “jail” requirement.

Several defendants in another consolidated appeal, State v. Santos, sought to distinguish their cases from French in order to serve their sentences in house arrest or day reporting programs. In several of the cases, the municipal judge stayed their jail sentences while they appealed. The Appellate Division cited Harris in denying their appeal, holding that it prevented the defendants from distinguishing their case from French. It also ruled that the criminal DWLS statute prohibited the municipal courts from staying their jail sentences pending appeal.

If you have been arrested for alleged DWI, you need the assistance of a knowledgeable and experienced DWI lawyer. We have dedicated our entire practice at Levow & Associates to DWI defense, and we are available 24/7 to get started planning a defense for your case. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team, contact us online or at (877) 975-3399.

More Blog Posts:

New Jersey Appellate Court Considers Whether “House Arrest” May Be Credited Towards Mandatory Minimum DWI Sentence, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, May 20, 2015

Drug Court Program May Be Available in Some New Jersey DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, May 13, 2015

“Alcohol Restricted Driver” Laws in Some States Impose Substantial Restrictions on People with DWI Convictions, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, March 12, 2015

Photo credit: By Ctruongngoc (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.