Drunk driving—also known as driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI)—is one of the most serious traffic offenses for drivers in New Jersey. In addition to possible jail time, a conviction for drunk driving can impact insurance rates, employment, and many other aspects of a person’s life.
Under N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, a driver found with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or greater can be charged with DWI/DUI. The penalty depends on a variety of factors, including whether it is a first or repeat offense, past traffic convictions, how far the BAC exceeds the legal limit, and circumstances the led to the charge (e.g. accident vs. traffic stop).
What Are the Penalties for a DWI/DUI in New Jersey?
Jail time: A first conviction for DWI in NJ means potentially spending up to 30 days in jail. A second conviction within 10 years can mean up to 90 days in jail and a third can lead to up to 180 days in jail.
IDRC: In addition to jail time, a judge can order a driver to spend between 12 and 48 hours in an Intoxicated Driver Resource Center.
License suspension: For a first DWI conviction, drivers can lose their license for up to one year, depending on their BAC. A second conviction means a possible suspension of up to two years. A third conviction can mean losing one’s license for up to 10 years.
Fine: Drivers face a fine of $250 to $400 for a first DWI offense. Drivers with a BAC of more than 0.10 can be fined between $300 and $500. A second offense, regardless of BAC, comes with a fine of $500 to $1,000. A third offense carries a minimum fine of $1,000.
Surcharge: New Jersey charges a surcharge of $1,000 each year for three years upon conviction for DWI ($3,000 total). The same surcharge applies upon a second conviction. A third means a surcharge of $1,500 per year for three years ($4,500).
Other fees: Drivers can also face over $500 in fees associated with a DWI conviction, including contributions to the Safe Neighborhood Services Fund (SNSF), Drunk Driving Enforcement Fund (DDEF), and the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Fund (AERF).
|First Offense (0.08 to 0.10)||First Offense (0.10+)||Second Offense||Third Offense|
|Jail time||30 days||30 days||90 days||180 days|
|IDRC||12 to 48 hours||12 to 48 hours||12 to 48 hours||12 to 48 hours|
|Suspension||3 months||7 months to 1 year||2 years||10 years|
|Fine||$250 – $400||$300 – $500||$500 – $1,000||$1,500 or more|
|Surcharge||$1,000/year for 3 years||$1,000/year for 3 years||$1,000/year for 3 years||$1,000/year for 3 years|
|Total Fines & Fees||$3,755 – $3,905||$3,805 – $4,005||$4,005 – $4,505||$5,005+|
How NJ Police Identify DWI Drivers
New Jersey police look for specific driving habits and behaviors when determining when to pull someone over under suspicion of drunk driving. The behavior does not have to violate a specific traffic law. For example, he or she may pull over a driver who hesitates before passing through a green light, or who is going unusually slow on otherwise clear roads. Police may also stop cars that drift from side to side within a lane.
Once a driver has been pulled over, the officer will observe his/her behavior to determine whether he or she has been drinking. The officer could attempt to smell alcohol on one’s breath or look for redness in the eyes.
If any of those signs arouse further suspicions, the officer may ask the driver to submit to some field sobriety tests. These tests can include the following challenges:
- Walking in a straight line with the heel of one foot touching the toe of the other, turning, and repeating
- Watching a moving object using only the eyes and keeping the head still
- Keeping arms to the side while standing on one foot
Drivers who fail these tests can be placed under arrest for DWI/DUI. Many officers also ask drivers to submit to a breathalyzer test. If the breathalyzer test determines the driver is above the legal limit, he/she will be charged with a per se violation of New Jersey DWI laws.
Refusing a Breathalyzer Test
Refusing to take a breathalyzer test is a serious offense and can have severe consequences regardless of whether or not one is convicted of DWI/DUI. This can include a license suspension of up to one year, a fine of $300 to $500, and the required installation of an ignition interlock device.
How NJ Police Identify Drivers Under the Influence of Drugs
While the presence of alcohol in one’s body can be easily tested at the time of a traffic stop or arrest, determining whether a person is under the influence of drugs (DWI drug) is a more difficult matter. There are many different kinds of drugs that can affect a person’s ability to drive and the exact effects can vary.
In New Jersey, a driver who is suspected of DWI-drug will be taken to the police station where he/she will be examined by a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE). This specially trained officer will then administer a 12-step evaluation, which includes looking a pupils, examining muscle tone, basic vital signs. Some of the more common field sobriety tests may also be used.
How a NJ DWI Affects Out-of-State Drivers
Living outside the state does not shield one from the impact of a DWI conviction in New Jersey. The Garden State is one of many states that participate in information-sharing agreements such as the Driver’s License Compact. This agreement means that any time New Jersey convicts an out-of-state driver of a traffic violation—no matter how small—it is communicated to other member states, who in turn agree to record the offense. Even if one’s home state does not participate in the compact, the NJMVC is still likely to reach out and attempt to communicate the conviction.
While New Jersey cannot suspend an out-of-state driver’s license, it can suspend someone’s right to drive within NJ state limits. Moreover, most compact participants reserve the right to suspend a person’s license upon conviction of an offense in another state that would have warranted a suspension at home. In other words, a New Yorker convicted of DWI in New Jersey could have his/her license suspended by the NY DMV despite the conviction taking place across state lines.
DWI in NJ School Zone
N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(g) establishes harsher penalties for drivers convicted of DWI or DWI drug in a school zone or a school crossing as defined under N.J.S.A. 39:1-1. A first offense for DWI in a school zone means up to 60 days in jail, a 1 to 2 years license suspension, and a fine of $600 to $1,000. A second offense for DWI in a school zone can mean between 4 and 180 days in jail, a 4-year license suspension and a fine of $1,000 to $2,000. A third conviction can result in a mandatory 180 days in jail, a mandatory 10-year license suspension and a fine of $2,000.
Common Questions About DWI in NJ
- Is DWI/DUI a crime in New Jersey?
No. New Jersey considers driving while intoxicated to be a traffic violation. A conviction does not mean having a criminal record. However, it can lead to jail time and a host of other penalties. In addition, a DWI can show up on employment background checks, which means it can have a similar negative effect as having a criminal record.
- Is it better to refuse the breathalyzer so there is no way for the officer to know for sure I was drunk?
This is a bad idea for two reasons. First, NJ police do not need a breathalyzer to charge a person with drunk driving; an officer’s observations of the driver’s behavior are sufficient evidence to potentially convict. Second, refusing a breathalyzer carries its own serious consequences regardless of whether or not one is convicted of drunk driving as explained above.
- If my tolerance for alcohol is very high am I more likely to pass a sobriety test?
Not necessarily. It is not always easy for a person to tell how alcohol is affecting them. Just because someone feels in control of their actions does not mean that their actions aren’t delayed or their speech isn’t slurred. Moreover, one’s “tolerance” for alcohol has little bearing on their BAC level, which is determined solely by the amount of alcohol present in the bloodstream.
- Can I plea down a drunk driving charge in New Jersey?
In most cases NJ courts do not accept plea deals on DWI/DUI cases. This means a person must either beat the charge (which will require the help of an attorney) or plead guilty. However, in special cases a plea bargain may be possible and in any event some of the penalties may be negotiable which is why it’s important to have a skilled attorney by your side, among other reasons.
- Will the judge go easy on me if this is my first offense?
It depends on the details of the case, including the circumstances surrounding the arrest, the driver’s BAC, past driving history, and more. It can even depend on the judge and the prosecutor involved. An attorney can help evaluate all of these details to determine the best course of action.