SEA ISLE CITY - A judge Monday suspended Atlantic County Freeholder Chairman and Surrogate-elect James Curcio's driver's license for three months after Curcio pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated.
The court, however, dropped a charge of refusing to take a breath test, which would have come with the more severe penalty of a seven-month license suspension, after Prosecutor Thomas Rossi said Curcio was not given a complete reading of the possible penalties he faced when the test was administered.
"I just want to apologize to the community," Curcio said after Municipal Court Judge Vincent Morrison accepted his guilty plea. "I should not have gotten in the car and (driven)."
Curcio, of Hammonton, said he continues to relive the events of that night in his mind.
"I'm very sorry that this happened and it's never going to happen again," he told the court.
Morrison said drunken driving is an ongoing problem in which people think "it's not going to happen to me."
"You're lucky that you didn't hit somebody," the judge said.
Defense attorney John Tumelty then handed Curcio's driver's license to the judge.
Curcio, 50, said the suspension would not affect his ability to serve in his elected role and he said he would make use of a combination of family, a hired driver paid for with his own money, and public transportation to make his way around the county during the suspension.
"I'm going to arrange my own transportation," Curcio said prior to the court proceeding. "I'm not going to use any county employee or county vehicle."
Curcio added that he never intended to use a county vehicle with or without the drunken driving charge.
"I've never used a county vehicle in 16 years and I have no intention of using it as surrogate," he said.
Curcio, an attorney based in Hammonton, was stopped Oct. 3 by Officer Francis Smyth for "somewhat erratic driving" near Route 40 and Wrangleboro Road in Hamilton Township, Rossi said.
Curcio told the judge he had been drinking beer that evening at several political functions.
Tumelty asked Curcio if the amount of alcohol he ingested affected his ability to drive safely.
"Yes, it did," Curcio said.
After the stop, Curcio was taken to the Hamilton Township Police Department.
Rossi said Curcio did take part in a breath test after being stopped by Smyth, but the first Breathalyzer machine malfunctioned despite the collection of two good samples on that machine. Tests given to Curcio on a second machine then failed to give readings that would be admissible in court.
"Our proofs would fail," Rossi said.
Police officers are also required to read an 11-paragraph statement advising suspects of the state's laws regarding breath tests in drunken driving cases and a final 12th paragraph must also be read to ensure the suspect is aware of the consequences of refusal before they are charged.
"Basically, it's a second set of warnings," Morrison said after noting an appellate court ruling that required that final paragraph be read.
In Curcio's case, the officer failed to read that final paragraph, and Morrison said that meant the state could not prosecute the case.
Curcio also pleaded guilty to driving without a valid driver's license.
"I think it expired in July. I didn't renew it until after this happened," Curcio said.
In addition to the three-month suspension, Curcio must complete 12 hours at the Intoxicated Drivers Resource Center, an alcohol awareness program, and he paid $884 in fines and court costs.
The court dismissed other charges for failure to maintain a headlight, reckless driving, careless driving and failure to maintain a lane.
"I feel terrible," Curcio said after paying his fines. ‘It shouldn't have happened and I will make sure it never happens again."
He said he learned a lesson and others should also learn.
"The main lesson is if you're going to drink any alcohol ... you have to have a plan of how you're going to get home without driving a car," Curcio said.
Curcio then left the municipal building carrying a temporary driver's license, good for just two hours and given to him by the judge, to make his way home.