New Jersey Refusal / DWI Sentencing Issues: Prior Refusal Conviction Does Not Enhance a Later DWI Conviction — Yet

New Jersey Refusal / DWI law is complex, but it has just been clarified by the New Jersey Supreme Court in a case called State v. Ciancaglini, decided January 19, 2011, favoring individuals who have prior Refusal convictions who then get a subsequent DWI conviction.

The case also illustrates that lower courts can be wrong in their assessment of an issue, and appeals must be taken in order to correct the errors made and reverse the conviction or legal issue.

Ciancaglini had a prior DWI in 1979 and then a conviction for Refusal in 2006. In 2008, she was convicted of DWI, and the Municipal Court sentenced her as a third offender, based on changes in the case law from a few years earlier. She then appealed to the Law Division, which agreed with her that the law precluded the Refusal conviction to be counted against her DWI sentencing, and sentenced her as a first offender, giving her the benefit of the 10 year step down rule between her 1979 conviction and the current 2008 conviction. The State then appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed the Law Division, and held that she should be considered a third offender based on the change of law in a case called State v. Cummings.

Fortunately, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division, and held that the legislative intent of the law precludes using the 2006 Refusal conviction to enhance the 2008 DWI conviction. The Court relied on a case called DiSomma from 1993, which determined that the Legislature intended the provisions of the DWI and Refusal statutes to be separate. Since the DiSomma decision, the Legislature has not revised the statutes on this issue, so the same reasoning applies: a prior refusal conviction cannot be used to enhance a subsequent DWI conviction.

The Ciancaglini Court noted that the DWI statute does not contain any reference to the refusal statute, and nothing suggests that the references to prior violations in the penalties listed in the DWI statute are meant to refer to anything other than DWI convictions. If the Legislature wanted to treat a refusal conviction as an enhancer for DWI, it would have to directly state that change of law.

Bills are already pending in the New Jersey Legislature to make this change. Therefore, it is important to consult with a qualified DWI Defense Attorney who knows DWI and Refusal law to fully assess your case and circumstances.

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