New Jersey law regarding driving while intoxicated (DWI) imposes progressively harsher penalties for multiple convictions. A defendant might not face heightened penalties, however, through “step-down” provisions in New Jersey statutes and caselaw. If enough time passes between convictions, a second offense might be treated as a first offense for sentencing purposes. A step-down might also apply in other situations, such as if a prior conviction involved a guilty plea without representation by an attorney. Convictions that have been modified through the post-conviction relief (PCR) process may also be subject to a step-down. Courts must weigh a wide range of factors in determining how to sentence a second, third, or subsequent conviction. The Appellate Division took on several of these factors in a recent decision, State v. Terpstra.
The New Jersey DWI statute imposes increasingly harsh sentences for second DWI offenses and third or subsequent offenses. The statute directs courts to treat a second conviction as a first conviction, for the purposes of sentencing, if the first offense occurred over a decade before the second. Likewise, if a third offense occurs more than 10 years after the second, the court shall sentence it as a second offense. The relevant date is when the offenses occurred, rather than the convictions.
Representation by counsel in prior DWI cases may also affect whether the step-down provisions apply. In 1990, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an important ruling, State v. Laurick. The court held that courts may not impose sentencing enhancements if a prior conviction involved a non-counseled guilty plea. In other words, a second DWI conviction must be treated as a first at sentencing if the defendant pleaded guilty in the first case without a lawyer. A third offense would be sentenced as a second.