People in New Jersey might be surprised to learn that being arrested for driving while intoxicated is not a criminal charge, but is a traffic violation. Crimes in New Jersey are not referred to as felonies and misdemeanors, but as indictable charges. There are degrees of crimes in New Jersey ranging from first to fourth. Examples of first degree crimes are murder and rape. Fourth degree crimes can include forgery and stalking.
Because DWI is a traffic offense, that doesn’t diminish its impact when arrested, but it does mean that a driver who is convicted of DWI will not have a criminal record. That, however, doesn’t alter the impact of a DWI. Penalties for a DWI conviction certainly won’t make anyone think of the last time they got a parking ticket or made an illegal U-turn and got caught. Even though it’s not going to be on the driver’s criminal record, that doesn’t alter the penalties being so harsh that they seem like criminal charges.
Being Stopped And Investigated For DWI
Law enforcement officers cannot stop a vehicle on suspicion of DWI unless there is a justifiable reason to do so. If the vehicle is swerving, crossing the center line, driving on the shoulder or performing dangerous actions, then the police can stop the car and investigate. If they simply stop a vehicle because it was in an area that is known for its nightspots, any arrest will be called into question.
Once the officer has made a legitimate stop, the investigation into whether or not the driver has been drinking can begin. The officer will question the driver and while asking for the driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance, there will be a scanning of telltale signs of intoxication like slurring words, the smell of alcohol and bloodshot eyes.
If the officer believes there is a DWI being committed, field sobriety tests will be given. The standardized tests include the walk-and-turn, horizontal gaze nystagmus and one-leg stand test. After these tests are given and there is still a suspicion of DWI, the officer will ask the driver to take a breathalyzer test. If a driver who is over age 21 registers 0.08% blood alcohol content (BAC), that is sufficient to make an arrest on the traffic offense of DWI. If a commercial driver registers 0.04% or if a driver under age 21 registers 0.01%, that will be sufficient for an arrest.
Penalties For DWI Conviction In New Jersey
Criminal offenses like those mentioned earlier have much harsher penalties than the traffic offense of DWI. For example, conviction on a first degree criminal offense can result in life behind bars and fines for as much as $200,000. Fourth degree crimes can result in as much as 18 months in jail and fines for as much as $10,000.
With DWI, however, the penalties are far less. A driver who is convicted of DWI with a BAC between 0.08% and less than 0.10% will have the driver’s license suspended for three months. There will be fines of between $250 and $400. The driver will have to pay $230 to the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center (IDRC). $100 each will have to be paid to the drunk driving fund and the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Fund (AERF). There will be a $1,000 per year surcharge for three years. The driver will have to pay $75 to the Neighborhood Services Fund. There can be as many as 30 days in jail. With a greater concentration of alcohol in the system or subsequent arrests, the penalties are heftier and the possibility of an ignition interlock device being placed on the driver’s vehicle increases.
Defending DWI Charges vs. Criminal Charges
While it’s not advisable to hire substandard attorneys or defend oneself in a case of DWI, unless a glaring mistake was made in the arrest the likelihood is that the driver will be convicted. These mistakes can include not giving the field sobriety tests on even ground, the officer not having the proper certification to give the breathalyzer test, the machine not being properly calibrated, or the aforementioned officer not having legal grounds to make the traffic stop.
For a criminal case, the attorney can mean the difference between getting a plea bargain and having the charges reduced or even dropped and going to jail for a very long time. It is imperative to have a qualified attorney in a criminal case.
Knowing The Difference Between Criminal Charges and Traffic Charges
When it all is said and done, a DWI charge is essentially a traffic offense with some aspects leading to possible incarceration and inconveniences long-term. Being convicted of a DWI could have significant ramifications on a person’s life with the expenses associated with it and the possibility that a job will be lost due to the inability to drive or show up to work while in jail, but that’s nothing compared to the penalties a person will face for criminal charges. When confronted with either, it is important to know the difference and act accordingly when formulating a defense.