New Jersey Supreme Court Rules that “Step-Down” Provision in State’s DWI Law Is Not Limited to One Use

New Jersey law directs courts to apply sentencing enhancements for a second driving while intoxicated (DWI) conviction, with additional enhancements for third and subsequent convictions. In certain circumstances, however, trial courts may not use sentencing enhancements when the statute might otherwise require them to do so. A “step-down” provision in the DWI statute, for example, directs courts not to apply sentencing enhancements if enough time has passed since the most recent prior conviction. We recently represented a client who wanted to use the step-down provision, but the trial court would not allow it. It said that he was limited to one use of the step-down provision, and he had already used it once before. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in our client’s favor, finding that the DWI statute allows use of the step-down provision more than once.

The step-down provision, found in the last paragraph of Section 39:4-50(a)(3) of the New Jersey Revised Statutes, states that if a person’s second DWI offense occurs more than 10 years after the first offense, the court must treat the second offense as a first offense during sentencing. If a third offense occurs more than 10 years after the second offense, the court must use the sentencing guidelines for a second offense. A 1990 decision from the New Jersey Supreme Court, State v. Laurick, sets another important limit on a court’s sentencing authority. A court may not use a prior DWI conviction to enhance a subsequent conviction if the defendant was not represented by counsel in the prior case.

The defendant in our case had prior DWI convictions from 1981, 1982, and 1994. The trial court applied second-offense sentencing enhancements in the 1994 case, since, while it was technically the third offense, it occurred more than 10 years after the most recent prior offense. Here is where the case can get confusing. The defendant was not represented by an attorney in the 1982 case, so the trial court should not have considered it during sentencing. An appellate court reduced his sentence for the 1994 offense to first-offense levels.

The fourth offense occurred in 2011. Because of the 1982 uncounseled DWI conviction, the Laurick rule required the court to treat it as a third offense for sentencing purposes. Since more than 10 years had passed since the most recent offense in 1994, the step-down rule should have required the court to apply a sentence for a second offense. The court denied our motion to use the step-down provision, however, ruling that the defendant was barred from using it because he already used it in 1994. We appealed up to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court’s ruling looked at the history of the step-down provision and concluded that it is not limited to one use. It noted that the state legislature specifically provided for second and third offenses in the statute. If a person has three convictions that each occurred more than a decade apart, the court held, that person may use the step-down provision for the second and third offenses. In a unanimous decision, the court reversed the lower courts’ rulings and remanded the case with instructions to sentence it as a second offense.

If you are facing DWI charges in New Jersey, an experienced and skilled DWI attorney can help you understand your rights and guide you through the criminal court process. Our entire law practice at Levow & Associates is dedicated to DWI defense. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us online or at (877) 975-3399.

More Blog Posts:

Other Offenses Commonly Associated with DWI in New Jersey, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, December 6, 2014

Second or Third DWI Convictions in New Jersey Do Not Always Result in Enhanced Penalties, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, August 1, 2014

New Jersey Law Allows Expungement of Many Criminal Records, but Not in DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, July 1, 2014

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