Driving with a Suspended License in New Jersey Can Lead to Criminal Penalties in Specific Circumstances

New Jersey DWI (driving while intoxicated) and related offenses are not considered criminal offenses. Instead, they are classified as traffic offenses, meaning that the maximum penalties, while still potentially quite onerous, are generally not as severe as in many criminal cases. A case involving alleged DWI can include criminal charges when injury or death occurs, but a defendant may also be subject to criminal prosecution merely for driving while their license is suspended (DWLS) when they have prior DWI-related convictions. The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division recently considered what prior convictions are necessary for the criminal DWLS statute to apply in State v. Dougherty.

New Jersey’s criminal DWLS statute imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of 180 days in jail. The statute identifies two scenarios based on the reason for the license suspension and the defendant’s prior record.
1. An ordinary DWLS charge can become a criminal charge if the license suspension is because of a conviction for first-time DWI or refusal to submit to breath testing, and the defendant has a prior conviction for DWLS during the same period of license suspension. This provision appears to require two prior convictions: one for DWI or refusal, and one for DWLS.
2. The criminal statute may also be invoked if the reason for the license suspension is a second or subsequent DWI or refusal conviction. This provision does not require a prior conviction for DWLS, but does require multiple prior DWI or refusal convictions.

The defendant in Dougherty was charged with criminal DWLS under the second scenario identified by the statute. He was convicted of DWI in August 2015, resulting in a three-month license suspension. In November 2015, he was convicted of refusal and sentenced to a seven-month license suspension. A police officer pulled him over while driving in December 2015, during the suspension period resulting from the refusal conviction. A grand jury indicted him for criminal DWLS.

In his appeal to the Appellate Division, the defendant argued that the criminal DWLS statute should not apply to his case. He cited a 2011 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court, State v. Ciancaglini, which held that a court cannot use a prior refusal conviction to treat a current DWI case as a second offense, in order to apply the DWI statute’s enhanced penalties. Since the defendant’s record consisted of one DWI conviction and one refusal conviction, rather than two convictions for either DWI or refusal, he argued that applying the criminal DWLS statute was an improper sentencing enhancement.

The Appellate Division disagreed with the defendant. While Ciancaglini prevented the use of prior refusal convictions to enhance DWI penalties, the court noted that a 2014 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, State v. Frye, allowed courts to use a prior DWI conviction to apply enhanced penalties for refusal. It based this on the “plain language” of the statutes. Using this same standard, the Appellate Division held that the criminal DWLS statute did not differentiate between prior DWI and refusal convictions.

DWI attorney Evan Levow advocates for the rights of people who have been charged with alleged DWI in New Jersey municipal courts. He can guide you through the court system, help you understand your rights, and prepare the best possible defense for your particular case. Please contact us at (877) 593-1717 or online today to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our knowledgeable and experienced team.

More Blog Posts:

Prosecutor Appeals New Jersey Court’s Approval of DWLS Defendant’s Request for Pretrial Intervention, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 4, 2016

New Jersey Appellate Division Reverses Criminal DWLS Convictions Based on Recent Precedential Decision, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 2, 2016

Felony DWLS Conviction Overturned by New Jersey Appellate Court, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, August 20, 2015