Most features of law enforcement in the U.S. operate at the state and local levels. These include traffic laws, like those related to driving while intoxicated (DWI). The legal system in New Jersey, like all states, categorizes alleged offenses based on factors like the type of activity involved and the severity of the harm allegedly caused. Major offenses are classified as felonies, and less serious offenses are considered misdemeanors. Traffic offenses are generally not considered criminal offenses at all, although they can still result in fines and jail time. New Jersey treats DWI as a traffic offense in all cases, but other states, like our neighbor, New York, take a different view. A recent case involving a New Jersey resident driving in New York illustrates the difference. An arrest for DWI, combined with a blood alcohol content (BAC) above a certain level and a prior DWI conviction, resulted in felony criminal charges.
DWI and most related offenses, such as a refusal to submit to breath testing and driving with a suspended license, are considered traffic offenses under New Jersey law. Despite the lack of the “criminal” designation, the penalties for a conviction can still be quite serious. A third or subsequent conviction for DWI, for example, results in a minimum jail sentence of 180 days, with credit for up to 90 days in a rehabilitation program. The only DWI-related offense that is considered “criminal” under New Jersey law occurs when a person drives with a suspended license, and the license suspension is due to a prior DWI conviction. This is a “fourth degree crime” and carries a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 180 days.
New York, much like New Jersey, codifies its DWI laws in the Vehicle & Traffic Law (VTL), rather than its Penal Law. The statute distinguishes among “driving while ability impaired” by alcohol, driving while intoxicated by alcohol, and “driving while ability impaired by drugs.” It identifies “driving while intoxicated per se” as driving with a BAC of 0.08 or higher, and it defines the offense of “aggravated driving while intoxicated” as either (1) driving with a BAC of 0.18 percent or higher or (2) driving while impaired with a child, age 15 or younger, in the car.