The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court ruled in State v. Lawrence that a defendant should not have received an enhanced sentence for driving while intoxicated (DWI), even though he had two prior convictions. New Jersey law increases the penalties for second, third, and subsequent DWI convictions, but there are exceptions. The defendant relied on two facts in support of his argument against enhanced penalties. He was not represented by counsel during his first DWI case, and both his first and second DWI cases occurred more than 10 years before the current case. The Appellate Division found that, under a New Jersey statute and a New Jersey Supreme Court decision, these facts required the trial court to sentence the defendant as a first offender.
The defendant pleaded guilty to DWI before a municipal judge, after he admitted to drinking “two alcoholic beverages and two beers” before driving. The defendant had two prior DWI convictions from 1990 and 1994. Although this was his third offense, the judge sentenced him as a second offender on August 30, 2012.
New Jersey’s DWI statute imposes enhanced penalties for a second, third, and subsequent convictions. It makes exceptions, however, if enough time passes between convictions. The DWI statute, in § 39:4-50(a)(3), states that if the third offense takes place more than 10 years after the second offense, the court shall treat the third conviction as a second offense for sentencing purposes. Since about 18 years elapsed between the defendant’s second and third offenses, the court applied the sentencing guidelines for a second offense.
The defendant appealed, claiming in part that the municipal court should have sentenced him as a first offender, instead of a second offender. The Law Division affirmed the municipal court’s verdict and sentence, and the case went to the Appellate Division.
The Appellate Division agreed that the municipal court should have sentenced him as a first offender based on two New Jersey Supreme Court decisions. A 1971 case, Rodriguez v. Rosenblatt, held that courts must advise defendants of their right to counsel. A 1990 decision, State v. Laurick, applied this rule to sentencing enhancements, holding that a court cannot impose an enhanced prison sentence for a subsequent conviction if a Rodriguez violation occurred in a prior case.
The defendant claimed that he was not represented by counsel during the 1990 case, that he did not waive his right to counsel during that case, and that the court took this into account in sentencing him during the 1994 case. The Appellate Division found that the 1994 court sentenced the defendant as a first offender in accordance with Laurick. Since that conviction occurred more than 10 years earlier, it held that the defendant should be sentenced as a first offender again. It remanded the case for resentencing.
A DWI arrest in New Jersey can have a serious impact on your life, regardless of whether you are ever charged with or convicted of an offense. Mounting an effective defense against a criminal charge requires the assistance of a qualified and skilled DWI attorney. We have dedicated 100% of our law practice at Levow & Associates to representing DWI defendants, and we are available 24/7 to help you. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team, please contact us online or at (877) 975-3399.
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New Jersey Supreme Court Dismisses DWI Charge, Finding that Defendant’s Right to a Speedy Trial Was Violated, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, June 7, 2014