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Winnie Comfort, AOC
Tamara Kendig, AOC
Change in DWI Plea Agreements in Municipal Court
New Jersey Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz has signed an order amending the “Guidelines for Operation of Plea Agreements in the Municipal Courts of New Jersey.” As explained in the Notice to the Bar signed by Administrative Director Judge Philip S. Carchman, the plea agreement guidelines are being amended to address issues raised by two recent changes to New Jersey’s drunk driving laws.
“These changes in the law set up a scenario whereby drivers who were stopped for suspected drunk driving for the first time and who refused to take a blood alcohol test could take advantage of a ‘loophole’ in the system,” said Judge Carchman.
In January 2004, the Legislature amended the law to add a new level of offense for drivers with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher, but less than 0.10 percent. First-time offenders with a lower level BAC face a three-month license suspension. Drivers with a higher BAC face a seven-month suspension, up from the six months under the old law. Drivers who refuse to take the BAC test typically face two charges, one for driving while intoxicated and one for refusing to take the test. In addition to the seven-month suspension for refusing to take the BAC test, the new law calls for a three-month suspension on the charge of drunk driving for drivers who refuse to take the test. These sentences may be served concurrently.
In April 2004, the Legislature increased the license suspension for refusing to take the BAC test from six months to seven months. This amendment made penalties under the new law consistent with the penalties under the old law: Refusing to take the test carries the same penalty as having a high BAC reading.
Judge Carchman explains in the Notice to the Bar that, rather than suffer a seven-month suspension for refusing to take the test, a driver could agree to plead guilty to driving while intoxicated with a BAC of between 0.08 and 0.10, and accept a three-month suspension in exchange for a dismissal of the charge for refusing to take the test. Without the results of a blood test to prove exactly what the blood alcohol level was, the guilty plea for the lower BAC could be accepted and the driver’s license suspended for three months.
“It is clear that the Legislature intended to make the penalties for driving drunk in New Jersey more severe and to identify a broader range of drinking and driving as illegal. Some members of the legal community have expressed concern that the amended guidelines would result in more trials. We have no clear indication of that result. However, if more trials occur, we will handle them. The alternative is unacceptable,” he added.
The amended guidelines prohibit plea agreements that result in the dismissal of charges for refusing to take the blood alcohol test in exchange for pleading guilty to drunk driving. The amended guidelines also make it clear that attempts to plead guilty to the lower level offense, despite a BAC of 0.10 or higher, are strictly prohibited. The changes become effective July 1, 2005.
The Notice to the Bar, Supreme Court Order and amended guidelines are posted on the Judiciary Web site at njcourtsonline.com