New Jersey’s DWI Ten-Year Step Down Rule
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In 2008, New Jersey’s intermediate appeals court, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, determined when a criminal defendant can receive a reduced sentence for a Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) conviction.
Normally, Courts impose harsher sentences on defendants who have prior convictions. In DWI cases, a New Jersey state statute requires repeat offenders to be sentenced more harshly than first-time offenders.
Under New Jersey’s ten-year “step down” rule, however, the Court must show leniency where 10 years have passed between the first and second DWI convictions, or between the second and third DWI convictions. Specifically, the Court must treat the defendant as though he has one less prior conviction when calculating his sentence for the most recent DWI.
For example, if a criminal defendant has two prior DWI convictions and he is convicted of a third DWI, he will be sentenced to a $1,000 fine, at least 180 days in a county jail, loss of license for 10 years, and mandatory installation of an ignition interlock device or loss of registration for ten years. But, if the third DWI conviction occurs at least ten years after the second DWI conviction, under the ten-year “step-down” rule, that same defendant would be sentenced to a fine of $500 to $1,000, thirty days of community service, imprisonment for 48 hours to 90 days, loss of drivers license for two years, and mandatory installation of an ignition interlock device or loss of registration for two years.
In the case of State v. Conroy, decided by the New Jersey Appellate Division in 2008, the defendant had three prior DWI convictions and was facing sentencing for a fourth DWI conviction. The State argued that the step-down rule should only apply where the defendant has one or two prior convictions, but not where he has three prior convictions. The defendant argued that the step-down rule should apply to him because his first DWI conviction was without an attorney and ten years had passed between his third and fourth DWI convictions.
The Court agreed with the defendant and decided that it was unfair and against the interests of justice to consider Conroy’s first DWI conviction during sentencing (because he did not have an attorney for that conviction). That left the defendant with two prior convictions for the Court to consider during sentencing. The Court then applied the ten-year “step down” rule, since at least ten years had elapsed between Conroy’s last two DWI convictions. Accordingly, the Court sentenced the defendant as though he had only one prior conviction. Thus, although the defendant really had three prior DWI convictions, he was sentenced under the ten-year “step down” rule as though he had only one prior DWI conviction.
The future of the 10-year step down rule, however, is uncertain. Currently, legislation to abolish the rule is pending before the New Jersey State Legislature. If eliminated, criminal defendants would not receive a more lenient sentence simply because ten years has passed since their last DWI conviction.
The ten-year “step down” rule is just one example of the intricacies involved in the criminal law and sentencing for DWI convictions. The attorneys at Bramnick, Rodriguez, Grabas, Arnold & Mangan, LLC are experienced criminal defense attorneys and can assist you in navigating the oftentimes complex criminal justice system.