DWI: Crime or Traffic Violation in NJ?


In New Jersey, a DUI is typically a traffic offense. In other words, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is not a felony, otherwise known as an indictable crime, or a misdemeanor, called a disorderly persons offense. Nonetheless, under some circumstances, a conviction for DWI allows the judge to impose a sentence similar to those of certain forms of criminal charges.

DWI charges require familiarity with the local court in which your case will be heard, up to the minute knowledge about changes in the law in New Jersey, and thorough knowledge of the proof needed to sustain a conviction. Anyone who is unfamiliar with defending DUI cases runs the risk of giving the wrong advice, or worse, failing to utilize the best defense approach available in your case. Fortunately, the lawyers at our Ocean County criminal and DWI defense law firm have over ten years of experience each defending these cases in courts across the Jersey Shore area, including in Seaside Heights, Brick, Barnegat, Lacey Township, Jackson, Toms River, Berkeley, and virtually everywhere in between.

Whether this is your first DWI charge, your third drunk driving offense, or you’re facing multiple charges for DUI and other offenses like endangering the welfare of a childleaving the scene of an accidenteluding a police officer, or assault by auto, we can ensure that the state is taken to task when prosecuting the case against you, that every possible issue is raised in an effort to get the charges dismissed, and that you are properly advised on the potential outcomes and options at every phase of the legal process. For a free consultation regarding your particular DWI or DUI charge, contact our local Point Pleasant office at (848) 238-2100 and an attorney can speak with you right away. As a preliminary matter, reviewing and understanding basic information concerning DWI violations in New Jersey is a great way to get started.

Is DUI in New Jersey a Criminal Offense?

Unlike other states, DWI is not a crime in New Jersey. A DUI is essentially a traffic ticket for which the police alleged that you were operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicating liquor or controlled dangerous substance. The substance, whether it is drugs or alcohol, is said to have impaired your ability to operate the vehicle in a safe manner, thus endangering others on the road and those in your immediate vicinity. This traffic violation is addressed in section N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.

You and anyone else who drives on any roadway in this state can be pulled over for an alleged infraction of the motor vehicle code. Once charged with the traffic offense, your case will be referred to the municipal court in the town in which the DWI was allegedly committed. Once there, you have the option of pleading guilty to the traffic ticket as alleged or having a trial in front of the municipal court judge. The Judge is the sole “trier of fact” and the individual who will decide your guilt or innocence.

Perhaps the fact that there is a trial is the reason why some people erroneously believe that a DUI is a criminal matter. The truth is that in all cases in which there is an accusation for which you may be exposed to punishment, the law mandates that you have the right to a trial. This does not, in fact, make the underlying offense charged a criminal case. Albeit seemingly positive on the surface, the penalties for drunk and drugged driving in New Jersey can match many of those for criminal charges. Believe it or not, being convicted of DWI may affect your ability to drive, have financial freedom, remain employed, and even avoid jail time.

Does a DWI Go on Your Criminal Record?

Since DUI is technically a motor vehicle violation, the record of the event, whether it is the ticket itself or order of license suspension, goes on your motor vehicle record. This motor vehicle record is referred to as a “driver’s abstract.” All traffic-related offenses, fines, penalties, fees and points are reflected on this document. The motor vehicle record, which is managed by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, reflects any and all alleged infractions from the time that you get your license, first ticket or offense, and runs until present day. In other words, any time in which you have ever been pulled over and received a ticket will be reflected on this record and will never be deleted.

Can I Expunge a DUI if I Am Found Guilty?

Despite the fact that you are entitled to a trial for DWI charges filed against you, you are not entitled to have it expunged from a state record. Only criminal offenses are eligible for expungement. The record of the DMV is not criminal in nature and therefore, there is no statutory authority allowing or compelling the state to remove it from the database. Your driver’s abstract will reflect all driving offenses charged or committed in the State of New Jersey.

Will a DWI in New Jersey Show Up on a Background Check?

Only records of criminal or quasi-criminal convictions will show up on background checks. Since a DUI is not a criminal offense, it will not be reflected on a background check. Employers may ask whether you have been convicted of a criminal offense and the good news is, with DWI, the answer is no. Unless it is specific to the employment you seek (i.e. truck driver/need your license) and the employer has other requirements, you do not have to advise them of your past conviction for DUI. Each situation is unique but the basic answer to questions concerning whether a DWI shows up is no.

If a Dui Is Not Criminal, Why Am I Entitled to a Trial?

New Jersey allows for trials in all cases in which you have been accused of something and where punishment by the court is authorized or may otherwise be ordered. Despite the fact that a DUI is only a ticket, you can go to jail as a part of your sentence. The loss of liberty is seen as clearly troublesome and therefore, allows you the right to a trial. The same holds true for any offense or accusation in which you face consequences. For example, even for a first DUI, you can spend as much as 30 days in the county jail. For a second offense the jail time increases and requires a minimum time in custody of two days, with a maximum amount of 90 days. This number increases to a mandatory 180 days upon a conviction for a third offense. The jail time is imposed in addition to the mandatory fines, penalties, and surcharges.

It is important to note that your motor vehicle record is used to determine the number of prior DWI offenses that you have had in the past, as well as the required disposition. It will never be deleted or wiped clean because the court will always rely upon an updated driver’s abstract when sentencing you. Unless the last DUI conviction occurred over ten years before the current one, another DWI conviction means your potential consequences become enhanced.

Who Can Help With Your DWI or DUI Charge in New Jersey

Being charged with a DWI is inconvenient to say the least, but it does not mean that your case is insurmountable. With knowledge, specific training on DWI protocols like field sobriety testing and appropriate calibration and use of the Alcotest breathalyzer device, and years of experience on our side, our NJ DWI defense lawyers are highly equipped to help you. If you are facing a DUI and/or related criminal or motor vehicle offenses in Ocean County, talk to a lawyer about your situation and get sound legal counsel by calling (848) 238-2100 today. The consultation is free and we are here anytime to provide the answers you need.

William Proetta

With more than a decade of experience defending clients against criminal charges, founding partner William A. Proetta has successfully handled and tried thousands of cases, from DWI to murder. As a New Jersey native, he has focused his career on helping people in the area where he grew up, serving Middlesex, Ocean, Hudson, and Union counties.