Driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a serious offense under New Jersey law. If you are convicted of DWI, you could face fines, jail time, and other penalties. If you have been arrested for alleged DWI, you almost certainly have questions. Here are some brief answers to a few common questions.
Under New Jersey law, DWI is considered a motor vehicle offense, rather than a criminal offense. However, the consequences of a conviction can still be very serious. The maximum jail sentence for a first DWI conviction is 30 days, but it increases for subsequent offenses. Other penalties, like a driver’s license suspension following a repeat DWI offense, can last for years, and the conviction will remain on your record.
Some states use the term “driving under the influence” (DUI) instead of DWI. People may use one acronym or the other, but as far as New Jersey’s laws are concerned, they are the same thing.
Most DWI cases begin with a traffic stop. Police might ask a driver to perform field sobriety tests to see if they appear to be impaired. All drivers in New Jersey are required by law to submit breath samples upon demand by police so that they may test blood alcohol concentration (BAC).
If police suspect that a person has driven while impaired by alcohol or drugs, they will place the person under arrest. Later, they will file charges with the local municipal court. The defendant will have an opportunity to hire an attorney who can help prepare their defense. The majority of DWI cases do not go to trial, but municipal court judges generally hear DWI trials when cases reach that stage. The judge will review the evidence and render a verdict.
The penalties for DWI escalate based on the defendant’s prior DWI convictions in the previous 10 years. The penalties for a first-time DWI can also vary based on the defendant’s BAC.
- For a first DWI conviction with a BAC of at least 0.08 percent but less than 0.10 percent (or with no BAC measurement but under the influence of intoxicating liquor): A fine of $250 to $400, alcohol classes for 12 to 48 hours, a jail sentence of up to 30 days, and the installation of an ignition interlock device in the vehicle most commonly operated by the driver
- For a first DWI conviction with a BAC of at least 0.10 percent but less than 0.15 percent: A fine of $300 to $500, alcohol education classes for 12 to 48 hours, a jail sentence of up to 30 days, and the installation of an ignition interlock device
- For a first DWI conviction with a BAC of 0.15 percent or more: A fine of $300 to $500, alcohol classes for 12 to 48 hours, a jail sentence of up to 30 days, a license suspension of four to six months, and the subsequent installation of an ignition interlock device
- For a first DWI conviction based on drugs: A fine of $300 to $500, drug education classes for 12 to 48 hours, a jail sentence of up to 30 days, and a license suspension of seven months to one year
- For a second DWI conviction: A fine of $500 to $1,000, a jail sentence of 48 hours to 90 days, community service for 30 days, a license suspension of one to two years, and the subsequent installation of an ignition interlock device
- For a third or subsequent DWI conviction: A fine of $1,000, a jail sentence of 180 days or more (potentially reduced, but to no less than 90 days, for each day that the driver participates in an approved rehabilitation program), an eight-year license suspension, and the subsequent installation of an ignition interlock device
The U.S. Constitution and New Jersey law require police to follow specific procedures when investigating a suspected DWI incident and collecting breath samples for testing. An experienced DWI attorney might challenge a charge by pointing out problems with the prosecution’s case based on any of the following:
- Stopping the defendant’s vehicle: Police must have a reasonable suspicion of a motor vehicle offense in order to stop a vehicle on public roads. If a police officer cannot provide a reasonable basis for stopping a vehicle, such as witnessing the vehicle weaving or running a red light, the court may dismiss the entire case.
- Alcotest device: New Jersey police use this device to measure the BAC of breath samples. The device requires careful calibration and maintenance to ensure accurate results. A 2008 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, State v. Chun, established procedures that the police must follow regarding maintenance and recordkeeping. Failing to follow these procedures can result in a court tossing out BAC evidence.
- Observation period: The Chun case also established a requirement that police observe a DWI suspect for 20 minutes before administering a breath test. During that time, police must make sure that the person does not put anything in their mouth. If they do not follow this requirement, the BAC results are inadmissible.
State law does not require prosecutors to prove that a defendant’s BAC was 0.08 percent or higher. They can prove that the defendant was too impaired to operate a vehicle safely by using other evidence. It is possible to meet this burden of proof even when breath test results show a BAC below 0.08 percent.
DWI is not a “criminal” offense under New Jersey law, but it is still a very serious matter. Your employer could fire you or take other adverse actions because of a DWI, especially if your job requires you to have a driver’s license.
A DWI arrest or conviction is also likely to show up in a background check. As a result, it could affect future employment prospects.
Any job that involves driving will require you to have a driver’s license. Once your license suspension period ends, whether or not a DWI conviction precludes these types of jobs is mostly up to individual company policies.
A DWI arrest or conviction will remain on your record permanently. That said, after a decade, a past DWI conviction is no longer considered when determining the penalty for a current DWI charge. For example, if you were convicted of DWI 12 years ago, and you are facing DWI charges now, the court will consider the current case to be a “first” DWI.
New Jersey allows people to petition a court to expunge records of certain criminal convictions. This means that all public records of the conviction are removed. Since DWI is not a criminal offense in New Jersey, however, DWI convictions are not eligible for expungement.