Some First-Time DWI Offenders Will Avoid License Suspensions

By Eric Englund | Dec 04, 2019

Trenton — So-called “ignition interlock” devices will have to be installed in all vehicles belonging to New Jersey motorists convicted of driving while intoxicated, even on first offense, under a new law which went into effect on Dec. 1.

But while the new law expands the ignition lock requirement to include all first-time offenders, it eliminates license suspensions for first-timers whose blood-alcohol level was only slightly above the legal limit, or between .08 and .10 percent.

Previously, only those convicted of a second DWI offense or more, or first-timers convicted of having a blood-alcohol level above .15 were subject to installation of the locking devices,

The law, which was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy last August, has been viewed by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and other supporters as a common-sense alternative to mandatory suspensions without ignition lock requirements.

“We must deter drunk driving without negatively impacting individuals’ ability to take care of themselves or their families,“ Murphy said when the law was initially signed. “License suspensions are an imperfect tool for accomplishing both aims, as they do not stop drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel and they can prevent ex-offenders from supporting their livelihoods. In contrast, ignition interlock devices prevent drunk driving while allowing ex-offenders to support themselves and their families.”

Ignition locking devices act as an everyday breathalyzer test, with the would-be driver required to blow into a tube to provide a blood-alcohol reading. The device, which offenders must pay to have installed in their vehicles, prevents a car from starting if the driver’s blood alcohol level registers above .05 percent, which is slightly below the legal limit of .08. After the car begins moving, the technology periodically requires the driver to blow into the tube to ensure it is actually testing the driver of the car.

Murphy said the measure is a way to curb repeat offenses while still allowing people to continue working to support themselves and their families.

“The numbers show that requiring the installation of an ignition interlock device is the most effective way to prevent repeat offenses and ultimately reduce deaths caused by drunk driving,” said Sen. Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen), a bill sponsor. “You simply cannot drive drunk with one in your vehicle because the engine will not even start if you are intoxicated. This law will make our roads safer to travel for all of our residents.”

According to the law, first-time offenders with a blood alcohol limit of 0.08 percent to 0.10 percent will have to have an interlock device installed in their vehicle for three months. An offender with a BAC from 0.10 percent to 0.15 percent would be required to have a device installed for seven to 12 months.

In terms of license suspensions, even under the new law first-time offenders whose blood-alcohol level was above 0.15 percent would be suspended for four to six months. They would also be subject to a longer installation of an ignition device, a period of nine to 15 months, according to the legislation.

Barnegat Township Deputy Mayor John Novak, an attorney who noted that DWIs make up much of his caseload, said the new law “punishes certain drivers without punishing the family.”

“Studies show that many people convicted of DWI keep driving,” he said. “This will prevent them from getting back on the road if they’re intoxicated.”

Novak said saving certain drivers from suspensions will help them keep their livelihoods.

“You get convicted of DWI and now you lose your job, can’t support the family and your house goes into foreclosure,” he said.

Harvey Cedars Police Chief Robert Burnaford said he hopes that lifting suspensions won’t encourage motorists to drive drunk.

“Driving drunk is a potentially deadly decision,” he said. “But getting convicted can be very costly to someone and their family, so it seems fair for those first-time offenders with a lower BAC. We’ll have to see how it goes.”

— Eric Englund






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