N.J. Supreme Court rules refusing Breathalyzer cannot be used to enhance DWI sentences
Updated: Thursday, January 20, 2011, 5:18 AM
Prior convictions for refusing to take a Breathalyzer test will no longer be counted against motorists when they are sentenced for driving while intoxicated, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled today.
The court found under state law, convictions for refusing a Breathalzyer and DWI convictions are not interchangeable, and can’t be combined when determining if a motorist is a repeat offender. The penalty for both offenses steepens as the number of prior convictions rises.
A South Jersey lawmaker today denounced the court’s decision and vowed to change the law.
“I see this as lessening the severity of the penalties for DUIs,” said Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D-Cumberland). “I believe the Supreme Court is actually setting us back.”
Albano, whose son was killed by a repeat drunken driver in 2001, pledged to introduce legislation that would raise the penalties for refusing a Breathalyzer to match the penalties for failing the test.
The court found state laws on convictions for refusing a test and DWI were intended to be separate.
“If the Legislature wanted to treat a refusal conviction as an enhancer for DWI … it would have had to do so in clearer language,” temporary Justice Edward Stern wrote.
The decision overturned the sentence of Eileen Ciancaglini of Monmouth County, who was pulled over in Rumson for reckless driving in 2008. She was charged with DWI after a Breathalyzer test put her blood alcohol level at .17 percent, over the legal limit of .08 percent. Ciangaclini had a prior DWI conviction from 1979, and was convicted of refusing a Breathalyzer in 2006.
The Rumson Municipal Court treated her as a third-time offender. She was sentenced to six months in jail, a 10-year license suspension, a $1,006 fine, and 12 hours at the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center.
A court on the Law Division overturned the sentence, treating Ciangaclini as a first offender. She instead received a $500 fine, 30 days in jail, a 12-month license suspension, and 12 hours at the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center. An appeals court then reinstated the original 10-year license suspension. Today, the Supreme said the law does not allow that.
“Neither the revisions to the DWI or refusal statute, nor any accompanying statements referred to us, suggest any integration of refusal convictions into DWI sentencing,” Stern wrote.
Ciancaglini’s lawyer, Stephen Pascarella, called the decision “a victory for the intellectuals of the world.”
“The Supreme Court is doing what they’re supposed to do, they’re interpreting what the Legislature has done,” Pascarella said. “That’s why we have the separation of powers.”