Panel Approves Bills Cracking Down On Repeat Drunk Drivers

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TRENTON – On Monday, the Senate Law, Public Safety and Veterans Affairs Committee approved a package of bills sponsored by Senate President  Richard J. Codey (D-Essex) that would crack down hard on motorists repeatedly caught driving under the influence or driving with a suspended license.

The bills would also impose stiff new penalties on those caught lending their vehicle to someone with a suspended or revoked license, in an effort to deter those who enable repeat offenders.

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“In my opinion, one time caught drunk driving is too many.  However, people make mistakes.  If you don’t learn from those mistakes and continue to endanger the lives of others, we need to send a clear message that we are going to have zero tolerance,” said Codey. “How can we tell someone caught driving with a suspended license that their punishment is another suspension?  That’s like catching your kid sneaking out their window when they’re grounded and sending them back to their room with the window still open.”

Codey was prompted, in part, to introduce the bills after reading reports this summer of an East Rutherford man who injured another man and his young daughter in a DUI related accident and was later found to have 12 previous DUI convictions and 78 license suspensions.

The first bill approved, S-2939, co-sponsored by Sen. John Girgenti, would impose mandatory jail time of six months to one year for anyone caught driving under the influence while currently suspended for a previous DUI or previous refusal to take a breath test; or for anyone caught driving two times or more while suspended for a DUI or refusal to take a breath test, even if they are not intoxicated.  The bill would also make these offenses a crime of the fourth degree, which can carry a fine of up to $10,000.

Under current law, anyone caught driving with a suspended license is subject to a $500 fine and a license suspension of up to an additional six months.  Anyone caught driving while suspended a second time is subject to a $750 fine, another six months license suspension and anywhere from one to five days in county jail.  Third or subsequent offenders are subject to $1000 fine, another six months license suspension and 10 days in county jail.

“The current law governing driving on a suspended license simply doesn’t have the teeth to be effective,” said Girgenti (D-Passaic and Bergen).  “This bill creates a disincentive for DWI offenders who get behind the wheel with suspended licenses, establishing criminal penalties for ignoring the law.  Drivers who don’t abide by the terms of their DWI license suspension need to know that there are real consequences to their actions.”

The second of Codey’s bills approved, S-2937, would require mandatory jail time of at least 180 days for individuals convicted of driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .20 percent or higher if they were previously convicted of a DUI within the last five years.  Like other similar laws, the offender may be permitted to spend 90 of the 180 days in an inpatient drug or alcohol rehabilitation facility.  Under current law, repeat offenders are not required to serve 180 days in jail until a third DUI conviction and there is no distinction for drivers caught with a high BAC.

Offenders would also be subject to the other penalties that exist under current law, which include, for example, a two-year license suspension and fines ranging from $500 to $1,000 for a second DUI offense.

The third bill approved, S-2940, co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Buono, would impose a fine of $1,000 and up to 15 days jail time for anyone who knowingly lends their vehicle to someone with a suspended license due to a DUI conviction or refusal to take a breath test.  These penalties would apply to the first or second time an individual is caught loaning their car under the above circumstances.  If they are caught a third time or more, they would get $1,000 fine, up to 15 days jail time, and forfeit their own right to drive for 90 days.  Under current law, the only penalties that exist for this offense are a fine of $200-$500 and up to 15 days in jail.

“When a well-meaning individual loans his or her motor vehicle to a driver who has a suspended license due to DUI, they’re short-cutting the provisions of the law, and potentially enabling dangerous behavior,” said Buono (D-Middlesex).  “This bill creates a legal deterrent against seemingly good-intentioned but reckless behavior.  We don’t want to see good Samaritans finding themselves as accessories to vehicular homicide, should their enabling of repeat DUI offenders end in tragedy.”

The bills now head to the full Senate for approval.


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