If a DWI charge isn’t bad enough, things become substantially worse when you have been charged with a DUI involving an auto accident.
Drunk driving is an extremely serious offense in New Jersey, and anyone who is convicted or who pleads guilty to DWI charges may be subject to harsh penalties that can include license suspension, other driving restrictions, and even jail time in certain circumstances. These penalties can apply in standard DWI cases, which means any instance in which the motorist was stopped by police while driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) above .08%. But what happens when the DWI also involves a car accident? For example, you may have had a few beers before getting behind the wheel, only to later lose control of your vehicle and crash into a parked car. Or you may have swerved across lanes and struck another car on the roadway. If the accident caused significant damage to the other vehicle, or if another person in one of the vehicles sustained injuries as a result of the collision, you could now face additional legal consequences. Bearing this in mind, you need to understand the penalties and costs of being involved in a DWI accident in New Jersey, and what can be done to negate the very harsh realities that may come with being convicted.
Getting Into a Car Accident Can Complicate Your NJ DWI Case
The good news for anyone accused of driving under the influence in New Jersey is that recent changes to the law made it less likely that a first-time offender in a typical DWI case will be exposed to jail time or driver’s license suspension. The bad news is that these relaxed penalties might not apply in your particular case if you’ve been charged in connection with a DWI accident – even if it was a single-vehicle accident that did not involve another car or another driver.
There are certain aggravating factors that can result in sentencing enhancements when they are present in a New Jersey DWI case. Some of the most common aggravating factors in DUI cases include:
- Property damage
- Physical injuries
- Prior DWI convictions
- Breath test refusal
- Extremely high BAC
- A minor present in the vehicle
When a DWI and a car accident happen together, and the accident causes either property damage or physical injuries, the accused driver can expect to face multiple charges and enhanced penalties, including possible jail time and driver’s license suspension. The bottom line is that a jail sentence is very possible if your DWI occurred in the context of an accident. Moreover, suspension of your driver’s license is also likely because a DWI with a car accident is often accompanied by reckless driving charges as well.
If Your DWI in Connection With a Drunk Driving Accident Is Handled in Municipal Court
DUI/DWI charges are addressed statutorily by N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, which sets forth the specific penalties and also stipulates that law enforcement can consider the existence of bodily injuries or property damage when determining whether there is reasonable suspicion to believe that a motorist was intoxicated. If you were involved in an auto accident, and police subsequently determine that you were above the legal limit of .08% BAC, you can be arrested and charged with Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) and other traffic offenses such as reckless driving, careless driving, and speeding.
These types of traffic charges, including DWI charges, are normally handled at the Municipal Court level and the case will be decided by a judge in a bench trial. Importantly, charges filed in Municipal Court do not lead to prison sentences and most first offense DWI charges in Municipal Court do not result in any jail time. As a caveat, repeated DWI convictions actually come with mandatory time in the county jail, the length of which is determined by the number of offenses in your past and the specific facts of the case.
If You Face Criminal Charges From a DWI Accident
While the consequences of a DWI conviction or guilty plea are somewhat limited because these cases are adjudicated in a local Municipal Court, DWI cases involving motor vehicle accidents often expose the defendant to far more severe consequences because they can trigger criminal charges that are handled at the Superior Court level. If you are charged with a felony, or indictable offense, in connection with your drunk driving accident, the case will be transferred to the county Superior Court. This can make a huge difference because the range of penalties that may be imposed for a conviction or guilty plea is significantly higher. In fact, the lowest degree of felony carries a penalty of up to 18 months in prison.
So, what exactly will cause prosecutors to bring criminal charges in addition to the underlying DWI charges? Essentially, if a DWI accident caused property damage or resulted in bodily injuries to someone other than the defendant, the prosecutor may file criminal charges in the case. In fact, even minor physical injuries to another motorist, passenger, or pedestrian can trigger additional criminal charges in your DWI case. If the injuries sustained by the other person were severe and required medical attention, it’s possible that you could face criminal charges with penalties that include a lengthy term of incarceration.
The criminal charges that often accompany DWI charges when there is a motor vehicle accident include the following:
DUI Assault by Auto Offense
When a motorist engages in reckless conduct by getting behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated and then subsequently causes an accident that injures another person, that motorist can be charged with a form of assault involving a motor vehicle, otherwise known as assault by auto. If the victim suffered serious bodily injuries (e.g., disfigurement), the assault by auto charges may be classified as a third degree felony with a possible sentence of 3-5 years in prison. For DWI accidents that result in minor injuries, assault by auto is a fourth degree felony that is punishable by a sentence of up to 18 months in prison. Addressed by N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(c) of the NJ Criminal Code.
Driving While Intoxicated and Vehicular Homicide
Vehicular homicide, or death by auto, is a charge filed in cases involving a reckless motorist who causes an accident that results in a fatality. If you were intoxicated and got behind the wheel of a car, and then you were involved in an accident that killed someone, you could face vehicular homicide charges. The mere fact that you had a BAC above the legal limit will likely be enough for the prosecution to prove that you were driving recklessly for the purposes of the statute. A conviction on vehicular homicide or death by auto charges is punishable by a sentence of 5-10 years in prison. Addressed by N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.
Leaving the Scene of a Drunk Driving Accident
Leaving the scene of an accident can be classified as either a traffic offense or a criminal offense, depending on the circumstances of the case. When a motorist is intoxicated, gets into a DWI accident that causes property damage, and then immediately flees the scene without waiting for law enforcement to arrive, it may lead to traffic charges. However, when the DWI accident results in injury or death, it may lead to criminal charges. These charges would be solely for fleeing the scene; additional criminal charges for assault by auto or vehicular homicide may also be filed against the defendant. A conviction for the criminal offense of knowingly leaving the scene of a DWI accident is punishable by a sentence of up to 18 months in prison. Addressed by N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1.1.
Charged in a DWI Accident in Hudson County NJ? What to Do Now
The stakes are significantly higher if you have been arrested and charged with DWI in connection with a car accident. Whether it be solely traffic charges you are facing, or you have been charged with criminal offenses as well, the penalties on the line and the aggravating factors at hand demand an aggressive defense strategy. At William Proetta Criminal Law, we offer skilled and tireless criminal and DUI defense for clients throughout Hudson County, including in Jersey City, Hoboken, Secaucus, Bayonne, Union City, Weehawken, Kearny, and West New York. Contact our local law office in Jersey City to speak with an attorney regarding your drunk driving accident case and find out how we can assist you. Our lawyers offer free consultations 24/7 by calling (201) 793-8018 or contacting us online.