10-Year Step Down to Lower a DWI Sentence in New Jersey
June 12, 2022
Those who know the law in New Jersey understand that a DWI conviction results in a harsh sentence, even for first-time offenders. But if you have more than one DUI, the penalties increase significantly for each offense. And while New Jersey still punishes drunk driving severely, the 2008 law change to DWI sentencing gave some offenders a break. Before 2008, there was basically nothing a convicted driver could do to reduce their sentence. After 2008, New Jersey adopted the DWI ten-year step-down rule that entitle judges to effectively reduce a sentence when ten years pass between DWI convictions following the first.
What a Ten Year Step Down Does in a NJ DWI Case
For multiple DUI offenders, the ten-year step-down rule provides for a judge to treat the third DWI conviction as a second DWI conviction if ten years elapsed between the second and third convictions. Likewise, a judge treats a second offense occurring ten years after the first as a first DUI offense. The difference is significant when it comes to DWI sentencing. For the third offender, a sentence includes a 6-month jail term, whereas a second offense may result in a 30-day community service sentence, plus the judge can sentence the person convicted to anywhere from 2 to 90 days in jail. A first offense is the least likely of the three to result in a jail sentence, although the judge could sentence up to 30 days in jail based on the circumstances of the case. A reduction in time spent with an ignition interlock device and in a driver education course through the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center (IDRC) also results from the step-down. Technically the judge does not reduce a sentence for the third DWI, but applies the appropriate sentence for a second DWI considering the step-down rule.
How NJ DWI Case Law Evolved to Apply 10-Year Step Downs
Since the 2008 addition to New Jersey’s existing DWI law N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, the NJ Supreme Court has weighed in on various applications of the step-down rule. The first significant case regarding prior DWI convictions that should not serve to enhance a subsequent DUI case is State v. Laurick. The Court ruled that a lower court could not use a prior DWI conviction to enhance punishment for the second DWI when the defendant was unrepresented by counsel, against court policy, for the first conviction. In this case, the defendant’s driving under the influence violations were less than ten years apart, but the Court noted that the defendant did not have the benefit of counsel, nor was there evidence he knowingly waived his right to counsel at the time of the first conviction. The Court decided the case in the context of incarcerating a defendant on a second conviction after an unrepresented first conviction.
In State v. Revie, the Court thoroughly analyzed the ten-year step-down provision’s legislative and case law history. In Revie, the defendant was on his fourth DWI and wanted another step down because ten years passed between the third and fourth convictions. He already used a step-down previously, so the municipal Court denied his second step-down request. The Appellate Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, virtually preventing multiple usages of a step down for the purposes of lessening a DWI offense by one to obtain lesser penalties. The NJ Supreme Court reversed. The state’s highest court held that a DWI defendant could benefit from the step-down rule more than once if they had no infraction for ten years before invoking the step-down statute again. Thus, the defendant escaped a third-time conviction jail term, though he had to pay fines as if convicted for a third-time offense.
Finally, in State v. Conroy, the New Jersey Appellate court applied the ten-year step-down rule to reduce the fourth offense to a second offense because the defendant did not have counsel for the first offense and the third and fourth offenses occurred ten years apart. The prosecution argued that the step-down rule should not apply to a defendant with three prior DWI convictions. The tension between not rewarding multiple DUI offenders and preserving the defendant’s legal rights is clear in the case law. A court should protect a defendant’s right to counsel and, thus, the ability to understand the consequences of a conviction. Without the benefit of counsel, a defendant who pleads guilty to a DUI may not realize that they could face jail for a subsequent DWI, even if the second occurred years after the first.
Applying the Step Down Rule in Your New Jersey DUI Case
In sum, the application of the ten-year step down is complicated. Judges who may not want to send a defendant convicted of a DWI to jail may still sentence the driver more harshly in other ways. For instance, they may order a lengthy sentence with an ignition interlock device to keep a repeat offender off the roads. And in the 2002 case of State v. Burroughs, the New Jersey Appellate Court limited the number of step-downs to two, the second and third, as the 2008 statute explicitly states.
Given the law’s complex application of the step-down rule and the tendency of municipal court judges to allow multiple step-downs for escaping jail, not other penalties, you should get skilled DWI defense representation. A defendant must request the step-down to obtain its benefits and you may not know if you are eligible without a highly knowledgeable DWI lawyer reviewing your particular case and situation.
A Skilled DWI Attorney can Help You Obtain a Step Down for Multiple DWI Offenses in New Jersey
If you have been charged and face a DWI conviction with a history of DUI convictions in New Jersey, you must seriously consider consulting with an experienced DWI attorney. You may lessen or even avoid mandatory jail sentences with the help of an attorney who knows the intricacies of the step-down legislative and case law history, as well as the current applications of the rule. An experienced DUI attorney in the area where you were arrested has the advantage of knowing the local courts and can advise you on how judges rule concerning step-downs and the resistance you may get from a prosecutor. These are invaluable insights than can help you understand the possible outcomes of your case and be used to achieve improved results. Your case may also allow your attorney to argue for why you should benefit from a step down after ten years or more between your DWI’s.
Call 609-850-8284 to talk to an experienced DWI defense attorney at our firm handling DWI cases in towns throughout Burlington County, such as Florence, Burlington Township, Evesham, Mount Holly, Permberton, Mount Laurel, and Cinnaminson. With our assistance, you can find out whether the municipal court judge can reduce your sentence by the ten-year step-down provision and other defense options you may have for a drunk driving or driving under the influence of drugs charge. Contact us today for a free consultation.