New Jersey has stiff driving under the influence penalties, but few controls to ensure accused drunken drivers don’t commit additional violations while awaiting their court appearances.
Unlike surrounding states — such as New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania — where drunken driving is a criminal offense, New Jersey categorizes driving under the influence as a motor vehicle violation.
One consequence is that New Jersey authorities cannot set bail or immediately revoke the license of someone accused of driving drunk. They must wait until a municipal court judge hears the case and issues a conviction, which can take weeks or months.
That was part of the problem officials faced in the case of a 45-year-old Vineland man, Anderson Sotomayor, who was charged with DUI on April 9. Until his court appearance, which originally was scheduled for May 30, he retained his driving privileges.
Sotomayor allegedly went on four additional drunken-driving episodes — on April 11 and 25 and May 12 and May 16 — before he was taken into custody on charges of illegal use of a controlled substance. The drug charge was the first criminal offense he faced that allowed authorities to impose bail and keep him from driving until his court appearance.
Lawyers and legislators said the case exposed a flaw in the state’s drunken-driving laws — the possibility for repeat offenders to continue driving drunk while awaiting their court appearances.
It’s a problem local legislators are trying to address by drafting a new bill.
“When people are sick and have this problem, they need to be literally taken off the road,” said state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cumberland, Cape May, Atlantic, adding that he and fellow Democratic district legislators, Assemblymen Nelson Albano and Matthew Milam, are working on crafting a bill that would address the issue.
Van Drew said lawmakers were in the research phase and looking into the best way to craft a bill to address the loophole.
“This case is really clear-cut,” he said of Sotomayor. “If they are not taken off the road, they are going to kill somebody.”
Lawyers said Sotomayor represented an anomaly.
“This is unusual that somebody would go on a rampage like this and rack up this number of (driving while intoxicated) arrests before he gets into court,” said John Tumelty, an Ocean City and Somers Point defense lawyer with experience in DUI law who is not involved in Sotomayor’s case. “This guy’s an anomaly even in the life of a repeat offender.”
New York lawyer John Campbell said laws in his state would allow authorities to impose bail and even immediately suspend the license of an accused drunken driver if they believe the person poses a public safety threat. Even driving while impaired — which is a violation — goes through criminal court, the Westchester County lawyer said.
The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles also can pull drivers in for a safety hearing during which authorities can decide to revoke the driver’s license even with no criminal conviction, Campbell said.
Pennsylvania also treats driving under the influence as a misdemeanor, giving police the discretion to release the suspect after arrest or bring the person before a district judge for a bail hearing.
“It’s handled the same way as a criminal offense,” Pennsylvania State Police spokesman Sgt. Anthony Manetta said.
New Jersey, compared to other states, ranks No. 16 in the percentage of traffic fatalities attributable to drunken driving, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. In New Jersey, 27 percent of all traffic fatalities involve drunken driving; the number is 30 percent in New York and 33 percent in Pennsylvania.
Once convicted in New Jersey, first-time drunken driving offenders face stiff penalties, including jail time — up to 30 days — mandatory loss of a driver’s license for at least three months and fines of several hundred dollars.
For repeat offenders, the penalties are even more harsh. However, after the third offense, the penalties max out at six months in prison and loss of a driver’s license for 10 years.
“Even if a guy gets convicted of four or five or six or seven (DUIs), he can still be sentenced to only six months in jail,” Tumelty said.
For example, if Sotomayor were to be convicted on the five DUI charges, six months in prison would be the most he would have to serve — the same as someone convicted of three DUIs.
According to the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts, there were 1,594 drivers charged with two or more DUIs within the past 10 years, and 541 drivers who were charged with three or more DUIs in the past decade.
Defending against DUI convictions, however, is difficult because those cases can never go to a jury trial, according to defense lawyers.
“There’s pluses and minuses for the defense attorney,” Tumelty said. “We have to try these cases in traffic court, which means we do not get a jury trial. It’s a bench trial before a local judge who works for the municipality where the case is being handled. When our defense is predicated on the credibility of the arresting officer, it’s always an uphill challenge for us to raise credibility as an issue in municipal court.”
At the same time, Tumelty said if DUI were made into a crime, authorities would be able to impose bail on offenders, but acquittals also would increase because defense attorneys would have more tools at their disposal, namely the ability to call for a jury trial.
“Our percentage of having a reasonable chance of winning these cases would increase substantially,” he said.
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