State Looks to Stiffen DUI Penalties

New Jersey drivers who drink before taking the wheel could get an unwanted gift from the state this holiday season. The state Senate is poised to vote in December on a bill that would toughen New Jersey’s DUI law.

Under the legislation — approved June 26 in the Assembly by a 46-15 vote — first-time offenders could be ordered to install locks on their ignition systems that require a Breathalyzer-type test before their vehicle will start. Such interlocking devices are currently in use, but only for multiple offenders with stricter punishments.

Under current law, first-time offenders in New Jersey face a license suspension of three to 12 months, depending on how high their blood alcohol level is above the .08 percent legal limit. Second- and third-time offenders are handed more time and can be ordered to use of the interlocking ignition device. Each must also take part in a mandatory alcohol awareness class.

State Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), sponsor of the bill and a municipal prosecutor in Linden, says blanket suspensions are ineffective. “I’ve seen people get sentenced to DWIs in my court over the years, then walk down the street, get in the car and leave,” says Scutari. “They are not being punished, they are risking a lot and the public is put at risk.”

Under the proposed legislation, first offenders would be allowed to keep their licenses, but would have to rent the ignition lock and have it reviewed monthly to see if they attempted to start their vehicle while legally drunk.

“An ignition interlock teaches a convicted drunk driver to drive sober, a suspended license does not,” says Frank Harris, state legislative affairs manager for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Harris says between 50 and 75 percent of suspended drivers keep driving.

“States that have passed laws like this have seen significant reductions in drunk-driver fatalities,” says Harris. “It allows [drivers] to continue to go to work, to continue to provide for their family, but at the same time protecting the public as they are not driving drunk.”

DUI arrests actually are on the decline in New Jersey. In 2012, there were 26,521 DUI arrests, down from 30,448 in 2007. Convictions also declined over the same period, from 25,212 to 22,760. Attorneys estimate 15 to 25 percent of DUI arrests are for repeat offenders.

DUI-related fatalities also have dropped, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The DOT says 28 percent of fatal accidents in New Jersey, or 164, were the result of drunk driving in 2012, down from 31 percent, or 194, in 2011.

There are numerous theories about why DUI arrests and fatalities are down. It’s likely a combination of stiff penalties and increased awareness of the serious nature of the crime.

“Less and less people are [driving drunk], it has to be,” says Victor Rotolo, a Hunterdon County attorney who has represented DUI defendants as well as victims of DUI-related accidents. “People get the message; the message is everywhere.”

Certainly, the stakes run high, even for first offenders. Under current law, the initial fine averages $650, along with a $3,000 surcharge, $100 license reinstatement, $100 counseling fee and, if ordered to use an interlocking ignition device, an additional fee of about $2.50 per day.

What’s more, attorney fees can range from $1,000 to $6,000, and insurance rates can automatically increase several thousand dollars upon conviction, DUI experts say. If there is a criminal act involved — such as an accident that causes damages, injury or death — thousands more can be added through assessments and potential civil or criminal litigation.

Steven Benvenisti, a Teaneck attorney and MADD board member who represents DUI victims — and was himself struck by a drunk driver 25 years ago — applauds the pending legislation. “The 24 other states that have enacted all-offender ignition interlock legistration have seen a reduction in fatalities on their roadways of up to 43 percent.”

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