For DUI offenses, New Jersey law formerly prohibited a judge from reducing a sentence until 2008 when the law changed. In 2008, however, case law introduced the “step down” rule for DWI offenses.
What is the NJ 10-Year Step Down Rule?
The rule’s effect is to lessen the severity of punishment when a ten-year interval passes between offenses. So, if a defendant’s second DWI occurs ten or more years after the first, a judge can exercise leniency in sentencing, treating the prior DUI as if it had not occurred. Thus, the second DUI becomes the first if it happened ten or more years after the first.
Reducing a DWI Offense in New Jersey
In State v. Conroy 937 A2d. 328 (2008), a New Jersey Appellate Court first ruled that a three-time DUI defendant could use the ten-year step down rule. Since the first DWI conviction occurred more than ten years before the second and third, and the defendant did not benefit from counsel at the first DWI hearing, the first conviction did not count in the sentence. A 1990 New Jersey Supreme Court case, State v. Laurick, 129 NJ 1 (1990), already established that a court could not enhance a subsequent DWI/DUI conviction sentence when the defendant’s prior conviction occurred without legal representation.
Later in State v. Revie, 220 NJ 226 (2014), the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a four-time DWI offender could use the ten-year step-down more than once. The defendant’s third DUI occurred more than ten years after the second, and the fourth occurred ten years after the third. Therefore, the defendant requested application of the rule at the fourth DWI sentencing, but the judge declined to apply it. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the trial and appellate court rulings, stating that the plain language of the DWI statute, including the step-down rule, NJSA 39:4-50(a)(3), allowed the second use of the step-down rule. Thus, a municipal court judge’s hands are tied in DUI/DWI sentencing when the convictions come at least ten years apart.
Before that ruling in State v. Conroy, a repeat offender’s sentence increased no matter what, getting steeper with each subsequent DWI. Even now, the DUI sentence increases with each subsequent offense in the absence of a step down allowance. Since repeat drunk or high drivers pose a public safety danger, the legislature aims to reduce the number of drunk drivers on the road.
What Happens to a DWI after Ten Years in NJ
The practical effect of the ten-year step down rule is to pare down cumulative penalties that increase with each offense and allow a judge more discretion in sentencing, to an extent. So, under current law, a driver with three DWI’s gets 6 or more months in jail, pays $1,000.00 in fines, and loses their license for 8 years. The defendant must also drive with an ignition interlock device during the suspension and for a period after their license has been restored as well. However, if the third DWI occurred ten or more years after the second, a judge must count the third DUI as the second for sentencing purposes. Thus, the convicted defendant would pay between $500.00 and $1,000.00 in fines, be sentenced to a maximum of three months in jail with 30 days of community service, and lose their license for one to two years, along with driving with an ignition interlock device for anywhere from two to four years. Upon request, a defendant may ask for the ten-year step-down rule to apply to their sentence.
Even though the step-down rule works in favor of a multiple DUI/DWI offender, the DUI/DWI law punishes subsequent convictions more harshly after the first conviction. As such, the defendants who commit three or four DUI offenses still get harsh sentences, even with a step down or two. In addition, the law prohibiting driving under the influence further seeks to protect the public to a large degree by mandating the ignition interlock device on the convicted driver’s car. A car with the device is inoperable if the driver has even a tiny amount of alcohol in their system. And multiple offenders spend time in jail, whether it is 2 days, 30 days, or six months. And yet, ten years is a long time between convictions, which shows a defendant’s sustained effort to drive sober, especially if the second conviction comes over ten years after the first when the defendant handled their DUI alone.
Can I get a Step Down for my DWI Case in NJ?
Since the step-down rule applies when a defendant requests its application, you must know that the law exists. Most defendants do not, but those with experienced and credentialed New Jersey DUI/DWI attorneys do. If you face a DUI or DWI charge, there are a multitude of reasons why you are smart to hire an attorney. A DWI defense lawyer at our criminal defense firm in Union County, NJ can not only request a step-down if appropriate, but also defend you against the charge in an effort to negate the possibility of your conviction. Though the law states that prosecutors may not negotiate for reduced charges for a DWI, a professional DWI lawyer on our team who knows what they’re doing can argue for a step-down if ten years passed between the last DUI conviction and the drunk driving or driving on drugs charge you’re facing now.
To challenge the municipal court prosecutor’s case, our talented lawyers can also examine your arrest and the evidence against you, including the breathalyzer and field sobriety tests. To improve your odds of the securing the best outcome your circumstances support, fight your DUI/DWI charges with a skilled lawyer by contacting us at (908) 838-0150 today. We offer DWI defense representation and free consultations anytime to serve your needs.