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How DWI Law Has Evolved in New Jersey


NJ DWI Law Updates Over Time

Do you know the differences in New Jersey DWI law between the previous law and the December 2019 amendments to 39:4-50? If you have been arrested for a DUI offense, you need a comprehensive understanding. The differences are significant and affect the daily lives of those convicted of driving while intoxicated charges across the state. Another tremendous factor in what role a conviction under the new law will play is whether your attorney is experienced with defending against it. You would be surprised how many attorneys out there haven’t handled very many DWI’s since before the December 2019 amendments. This is a serious issue and WILL negatively affect the outcome of your case and, therefore, your life in a very big way. For this reason, it is advisable to find an attorney who has successfully handled thousands of DWI cases on behalf of clients throughout their careers, and many DUI charges since the changes to DWI laws took effect.

Old School Drunk Driving

Most people have a family member they don’t see too often, but when they do, they are showered with fascinating tales of yesteryear, maybe their “glory” days. Every now and then you may hear a story of how they may have had one gin and tonic too many and decided to make the worst decision of their lives: drive home. If this happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s, if they got pulled over, it really depended on how well they knew the police officer. The endings to these stories may range from being driven home by the officer, or “followed home” by the officer, to literally having the book thrown at them in court.

The 1970s and ‘80s were a different time. DWIs were definitely not taken as seriously as they are today. The law before the amendments in December of 2019 included serious penalties. However, these penalties had to be applied the same way to a wide range of defendants, which spans those who have a serious drinking problem and may kill someone one day, to a person who may have had a faulty breathalyzer and didn’t have the right attorney. For these two defendants, the penalties were the same. It depended on what number offense this was; for example, their first, second, third, or subsequent offense.

Pre-December 2019 Driving While Intoxicated Sentencing

Sentencing under the old laws immediately preceding the amendments went according to four levels of DWI offenses. The lowest, with the most lenient minimum sentence, would come with a person’s first offense if their Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) was between .08% and .10%. The second level would also be a first offense; however, the BAC would have to be greater than 0.10%. The lowest level first offense had a 90-day suspension, with the Judge having the discretion of adding an Ignition Interlock Device (IID). An IID is a device installed on a convicted drunk driver’s vehicle that prevents the car from starting without the driver blowing into a breathalyzer and receiving a legal BAC level result. The Judge also had the discretion to institute community service but was mandated to sentence the defendant to 12 hours of attending the Intoxicated Driver’s Resource Center (IDRC). The IDRC is a locked-down facility in which defendant’s learn about alcoholism. They were mandated to attend two 6-hour days there and cannot miss their session or risk being deemed non-compliant and having a warrant issued for their arrest.

Second time offenders were subject to a mandatory two year license suspension and at least 48 hours in the IDRC program. Third or subsequent offenders, the highest level of penalty and harshest sentence, carried a license suspension of ten years, community service, at least 48 hours of the IDRC, and a mandatory 6 months in jail. Three months out of the six-month sentence, however, could be spent at a drug and/or alcohol rehabilitation facility. Mandatory jail sentences for a third or subsequent offense came about through tragedy. A New Jersey case involving a drunk driver hitting and killing a young nineteen-year-old boy prompted former Governor James E. McGreevey to sign into law this sentencing guideline. The driver had four previous DWI convictions yet remained free and able to drink. Suspensions won’t stop everyone from getting behind the wheel after drinking a few or more. In 2003, when this law was signed, the statistic was 1/3 of all DWI arrests were repeat offenders, who are also 40% more likely to be involved in a fatal accident.

What Drunk Drivers Face in a Post-2019 DWI Landscape

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is probably one of the most successful and powerful lobbying groups when it comes to alcohol and driving. The MADD New Jersey affiliate has supported and fully endorse the 2019 amendments. New Jersey, when the amendments passed, became the 34th “all-offender” state which means that we now require ALL DWI offenders to have the IID installed and the 37th state to use or test the device. The sentence, in fact, largely revolves around the IID, and determines the length of suspensions for first time offenders with any BAC reading at the time of arrest. Here’s a quick reference guide to the new and improved 39:4-50:

Penalties § 39:4-50. Driving while intoxicated (2019)

# of DWI’s

(Blood Alcohol Concentration)

Ignition Interlock Device Time DL Suspension (LREK) Intoxicated Driver Resource Center (hours detained) Jail Fines ($) 

1st (greater than .08 but less than .10)

*No mandatory suspension of driver’s license*

6 months to 1 year Only suspended for the time it takes to have IID installed and operating 12 to 48 Up to 30 days $250 to 400
1st (greater than .10 but less than .15) 7 months to 1 year Only suspended for the time it takes to have IID installed and operating 12 to 48 hours Up to 30 days $300 to 500
1st (>.15) 9 to 15 months 4 to 6 months 12 to 48 hours Up to 30 days Same as above
2nd Offense 1 to 3 years post-suspension 1 to 2 years Min. 48 hours Up to 90 days $500 to 1000
3rd or subsequent offense 1 to 3 years  post-suspension 8 years Min. 48 hours Mandatory 180 days (90 days in rehab) $1000

For those convicted of a first offense and have a BAC reading below .10% but more than .08%, there is no mandatory license suspension. However, it is now mandatory for the defendant to have an IID installed in their vehicle. In order to start their vehicle, they will be required to blow into the device and achieve a BAC reading below 0.05%.

Just like the old statute, the 2019 amendments separate first-time offenders by BAC readings at the time of the offense. However, a new classification of offender is created: those with a BAC of .15% or above are still subject to a license suspension between four and six months long, as well as the IID installation.  The IID must be installed and utilized for a maximum of fifteen months and no less than nine months.

Second-time offenders may be suspended for up to two years and have the IID for no more than four years and no less than two. It is also important to know that for fines, these are the actual penalty for offense. However, the court always adds mandatory assessments required by law.

Safer Roads for All is Always the Goal

The legislature’s intent was to improve the likelihood of an effective deterring sentence. The previous statute still allowed convicted offenders to get behind the wheel if they drank because the suspended license is only effective if the offender is caught, which the families of victims can tell you is too late. Instead of waiting for a qualifying DWI offense, New Jersey now brings a proven method of ensuring drunk drivers, specifically those who have been previously convicted of drunk driving, do not commit the same offense again.  While most people think a suspended license may be the most invasive and disadvantageous penalty of a DWI sentence, the IID imposes monthly costs, installation fees, removal fees, in addition to court finds, mandatory assessments, insurance surcharges (MVC $1000 penalty per year for three years). Now that the suspension isn’t necessarily required, convicted offenders are now incentivized to control their drinking, make better choices, and, of course, go to work so they can pay for their new monthly expenses.

The new statute does not include a strict penalty for getting a DWI in a school zone. Before the 2019 amendments, if you were caught driving drunk in a school zone, the penalties were seriously augmented. A message had to be given to those “reckless” enough to drive drunk near children. Having realized that a school zone is not constantly filled with children every minute of the day, the legislature thought this harsh penalty to be obsolete. There is no longer a school zone provision in the DWI statute. School zones and 1,000 feet around them meant DWIs proven to occur there would ruin the life of whoever was driving drunk. Most DWIs happened late at night or distanced from the actual school property. No children are typically harmed. This elimination is consistent with New Jersey’s push toward rehabilitation.

DWI’s Are The Most Serious Traffic Offense (Title 39) In New Jersey

Every penalty listed in the chart above is considered a Consequence of Magnitude. Those words carry depth and weight. “Consequence” is defined as “a result or effect of an action or condition,” and  “magnitude” means “the great size or extent of something.” These penalties are a result of wrongful behavior intended solely to punish and rehabilitate. There is a fine line between punishment and rehabilitation or making life harder for the convicted versus helping the convicted change their lives and prevent any future offenses.

The only way to ensure that the proper balance is struck is to retain an experienced attorney who has defended against the 2019 amendments. Besides the perfection that’s required of the state to guarantee a conviction and the strict methodology put into place by precedent, the state can lead the court towards a more punitive conclusion to your matter rather than rehabilitative. Without proper legal representation, who you are as a person, and your responsibilities will have zero effect on how your sentence impacts you. With an experienced attorney, your life and family will be taken into consideration if it comes to that. Experienced attorneys comfortable with the 2019 amendments will likely find mistakes made in how the arresting officer conducted everything from the initial stop to the prosecutor requesting a particular sentence.

Contact a Lawyer Updated on the New DWI Laws in Morris County, New Jersey

An experienced attorney will use the facts of your case to take advantage of the new 2019 amendments and the more rehabilitative sentences that are handed down. We serve clients in Florham Park, Rockaway, Madison, Roxbury, Parsippany, Mount Olive, and towns in Morris County and across New Jersey. Call 973-524-7238 or fill out an online request for a free DWI legal consultation today.



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