New Jersey law imposes increasingly harsh penalties for subsequent convictions of driving while intoxicated (DWI) and refusal to submit to breath testing. Penalties for both offenses may include fines, a driver’s license suspension, and the mandatory use of an ignition interlock device. A conviction for DWI may also involve jail time. State law includes “step-down” provisions, however, that lessen the severity of a sentence if a sufficient amount of time has passed since the most recent prior conviction. The New Jersey Appellate Division recently ruled on an appeal involving a defendant’s refusal conviction, which followed three DWI convictions. The court’s ruling in State v. Clapper considered whether the step-down provisions, which only mention second and third DWI offenses, apply to subsequent refusal offenses.
The New Jersey DWI statute imposes progressively harsher penalties for (1) a first DWI conviction involving a blood alcohol content (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent but less than 0.10 percent, (2) a first offense involving a BAC of 0.10 percent or higher, (3) a second offense, and (4) a third or subsequent offense. The refusal statute imposes increasing penalties for (1) first, (2) second, and (3) third or subsequent offenses. Prior DWI convictions may be used to enhance the sentence for a refusal conviction, according to the Appellate Division’s 2015 ruling in State v. Taylor, but prior refusal convictions may not be used to enhance a DWI conviction.
Under the step-down provisions, if a second DWI offense occurs more than 10 years after the first, the court must impose the sentence for a first offense. Likewise, if a third offense occurs more than 10 years after the second, the court must treat it as a second offense. This applies to both DWI and refusal convictions under the system described in Taylor. Notably, the step-down provisions do not mention subsequent convictions after a third one.