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Refusal Convictions Do Not Count As Prior DWI Offenses in New Jersey

On January 19, 2011, the New Jersey Supreme Court, in State v. Ciancaglini, No. A-92/93-09, issued a ruling that has immense consequences for anyone convicted of a DWI in New Jersey.  The Court determined that a prior conviction for refusing to submit to breath testing cannot be considered for the purposes of enhancing penalties for a current DWI conviction.

In Ciancaglini, the defendant was convicted in May of 2008 for DWI.  Prior to the 2008 conviction, Ciancaglini was convicted for DWI in 1979 and for refusing to submit to breath testing in 2006.  During her guilty plea, she argued that the refusal conviction in 2006 was not equivalent to a DWI conviction and, therefore, it could not be used to enhance her sentence to make her a third-time DWI offender.  Instead, she asked the court to sentence her as a first-time offender based on the sentencing laws in New Jersey that allow first-offender penalties to be imposed if ten years elapsed between DWI convictions.

The municipal court denied her request and sentenced her to serve six months in jail and revoked her driving privileges for ten years.  The law division reversed the municipal court decision and sentenced Ciancaglini as a first-time offender.  This ruling was reversed by the Appellate Division, which reinstated the municipal court sentence.

In the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court, the Court declared that the DWI statute did not contain any reference to the refusal statute.  Furthermore, the DWI statute does not suggest in any way that additional DWI penalties can be imposed if a defendant had been previously convicted for refusing to submit to breath testing.  Finally, the Court surmised from reading and interpreting all applicable DWI-related laws that the New Jersey legislature never wanted to increase the penalties for a DWI based on prior refusal convictions.

Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Appellate Division.  Effectively, the sentence of the municipal court was reversed again and Ciancaglini received the sentence of the law division, treating her as a first-time offender.

 

Leckerman