DWI Convictions from Outside New Jersey May Count Toward Priors Leading to Criminal Charge for Driving with a Suspended License

State_border_sign_on_NY_17Driving while intoxicated (DWI) and related offenses, including driving while license suspended (DWLS), are considered traffic offense under New Jersey law, rather than criminal offenses. Under certain circumstances, however, the state can charge DWLS as a criminal offense with a much greater penalty. This might occur when a driver has multiple prior DWI or DWLS convictions at the time of the alleged DWLS offense. A defendant recently argued to the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division that a criminal DWLS charge should not apply to him because only one prior DWI conviction was from New Jersey, and the statute therefore does not allow courts to consider out-of-state convictions. The Appellate Division rejected this argument in late April 2016 in State v. Luzhak, meaning that out-of-state convictions count toward criminal DWLS.

A conviction for DWI or DWLS as a traffic offense may result in jail time and fines, in addition to a driver’s license suspension, but the maximum penalties are generally lower than those for many criminal offenses. Absent any aggravating factors, such as involvement in an accident that causes a bodily injury to someone, the maximum penalty for a third or subsequent simple DWLS conviction is a $1,000 fine and up to 10 days in county jail. A conviction for criminal DWLS, however, results in a mandatory minimum 180-day jail sentence, the same sentence imposed for a third or subsequent DWI conviction.

The state may charge someone with criminal DWLS in two situations:

1. The defendant’s license is under suspension for a first DWI conviction, and the driver has also previously been convicted of simple DWLS; or
2. The defendant’s license is under suspension for a second or subsequent DWI conviction.

The defendant in Luzhak was charged under the second scenario.

After a “minor car accident” in October 2013, the defendant received a municipal court summons for DWLS, and he was then indicted by a grand jury for criminal DWLS. At the time of the accident, his license was suspended in connection with a March 2013 Maryland DWI conviction. He also had a DWI conviction in New Jersey from 2010. He argued to the trial court that the Maryland DWI conviction “did not qualify as a predicate DWI conviction” under the criminal DWLS statute, since the statute “does not reference license suspensions from foreign jurisdictions.” The trial court rejected his argument, so he took it to the Appellate Division.

The defendant’s argument was essentially that, since the criminal DWLS statute does not mention out-of-state convictions, the court should interpret it as not allowing out-of-state convictions to count. The Appellate Division also rejected this argument. It cited several New Jersey Supreme Court cases establishing that courts cannot “rewrite” laws if their language is clear. If a court finds, however, that interpreting a statute literally would “create a manifestly absurd result” that it finds is “contrary to public policy,” the court should apply “the spirit of the law.” Also, if a court finds that “a statute’s plain language is ambiguous or subject to multiple interpretations,” it may consider “extrinsic evidence,” such as the history and circumstances surrounding the statute’s enactment. Using this analysis, the court found no reason to conclude that the Legislature intended to exclude out-of-state convictions from consideration in criminal DWLS.

An experienced and knowledgeable DWI attorney can protect your rights and prepare an effective defense for your New Jersey DWI case. Contact Levow DWI Law today online or at (877) 593-1717 to schedule a free and confidential consultation. We are available to help you 24/7.

More Blog Posts:

DWI Conviction History Brings Parent to the Attention of New Jersey Child Protection Agency, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 28, 2016

Consequences of DWI Conviction in New Jersey Extend Beyond License Suspension, Could Include Loss of Employment Benefits, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 19, 2016

Defendant in New Jersey DWI Case Raises “Double Jeopardy” Claim During Appeal, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, February 9, 2016

Photo credit: Daniel Case at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.