Newark, NJ- In New Jersey, if an individual is convicted of their first DWI, they are most likely going to have their license suspended for up to one year, or more, depending on the details of their case. When their court-ordered suspension is up, a DWI defendant can have their license reinstated, but some DWI defendants fail to do so for different reasons. Perhaps, a defendant can’t afford the reinstatement fees or simply failed to go through the administrative process when the suspension period is up. What happens to these people when they are caught driving after their period of suspension should have ended but didn’t? How should the courts treat individuals who drive while suspended in these circumstances?
That is a question the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court addressed in a recent case and clarified the state’s driving while suspended statutes.
Under New Jersey statutes (N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26(a) and (b)), it is considered a fourth degree criminal offense to drive while suspended as the result of DWI charge or failure to submit to a breath test. It is punishable by a maximum of 18 months in prison and a mandatory minimum of 180 days in jail; a sentence which was intended to address DWI recidivism. The language of the law states that this sentence is applicable “under certain circumstances.”
The Appellate Court sought to clarify when a defendant should face criminal charges for driving while suspended and when a defendant should face the lesser charged offense of a motor vehicle violation, which carries a lesser penalty.
In the the opinion, the Appellate Court noted that when the DWI statutes were written, lawmakers intended for a person driving on a suspended to be charged criminally, but the law did not address how and individual should be charged if they failed to have their license reinstated after their period of suspension for the DWI expires.
The Appellate Court consolidated seven different cases involving drivers who had been charged with driving while suspended as the result of a DWI conviction. In the majority of those cases, the defendants were arrested after their mandated suspension period had ended, but failed to petition the Division of Motor Vehicles to have their licenses reinstated. Some of the defendants argued that they were not in violation of the criminal law because their court-ordered suspension period had already expired and that their license suspension was a violation of motor vehicle law, not criminal statutes.
A court-ordered license suspension is imposed when a person is adjudicated and sentenced for an offense whereas an administrative suspension occurs when a person hasn’t paid the associated costs and submitted the necessary applications and documents to the Division of Motor Vehicles.
In the court’s opinion, Judge Alvarez wrote, “We conclude that the statute criminalizes the operation of a motor vehicle only while the operator is serving the court-imposed term of suspension, and not thereafter.”
The court established that state law “was intended to apply only when the actor is ‘under suspension’ for those offenses.” Meaning, the law only applies when an individual is still serving out their sentence for a DWI conviction. It does not apply to administrative suspensions. The court also said that in the absence of clear language from the legislature, the law should be interpreted in the “spirit of leniency” in favor of criminal defendants.
I understand how decisions like this affect my DWI clients in Clifton, Elmwood Park, Jersey City, Elizabeth and Newark, and make it a point to follow these and other critical cases closely. It allows me to cater your defense to the specific needs of your case and gives you a greater chance of avoiding a conviction or the most serious penalties.
If you retain me as your DWI attorney, you can be confident that I will use by body of legal knowledge to get you best possible outcome for your case.