UPDATED SEPTEMBER 19, 2019
As we have previously discussed, drunk driving convictions (whether by plea or trial conviction) are very serious in New Jersey and carry with them several mandatory penalties. The prosecutors take these cases seriously and they will not agree to drop the charges or plead them down to a lesser offense. One of the mandatory penalties in a New Jersey DUI case is that the defendant’s license will be suspended. Driving while suspended for DUI or for refusal to submit to a breath test is very serious and carries heightened penalties.
If a person is convicted or found guilty of drunk driving, all judges in New Jersey municipal courts will advise the defendant that if they drive while suspended for DUI they will be subject to several mandatory penalties.
Under N.J.S.A. 39:3-40(f)(2) and 39:3-40(f)(3), a person who drives while suspended for DUI must be sentenced to 10 to 90 days in jail (the penalties are even more severe if it’s in a school zone). However, some defense attorneys have been able to negotiate more creative sentences, which still comply with the minimums imposed by the statute. For example, offering to have the defendant serve the sentence in an in-patient rehab facility and/or house arrest.
But if a person has been found guilty of multiple DUI offenses and drives while suspended, the person is actually committing a 4th degree crime, per N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26(b). In that statute, the court is obligated to impose a minimum 180 days in jail with no opportunity for parole. In several of those cases, defense attorneys likewise attempted to negotiate more creative sentences. And in some cases, they were successful. The sentencing judge in some cases allowed part of the sentence to be served in a rehab facility or with house arrest.
This issue was recently heard by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the case of State v. Harris. The State took the position that such sentences were illegal. The defendants (and there were several since a bunch of similar cases were consolidated) took the position that these sentences were just like a jail sentence because if a person leaves house arrest or fails to report for a program then they are committing a crime and would be jailed. Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed with the State and held that the statute was clear: People who commit multiple DUI offenses and drive while suspended must be sentenced to 180 days of jail incarceration.
This decision strengthens the point that driving while suspended for DUI is especially serious and must be taken very seriously by those accused of such offences.