New Supreme Court Decision on Drunk Driving: The “Step-Down” Provision

Rispoli & Borneo P.C.

Drunk Driving Attorney Elizabeth NJAs drunk driving attorneys in Elizabeth NJ, Rispoli & Borneo keeps abreast of new rulings in Municipal Court matters. On December 17, 2014, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided State v. Revie, which required the Court to consider whether the “step-down” provision contained in N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a)(3) can be relied upon by a defendant more than once.

The New Jersey drunk driving laws spell out specific sentencing guidelines for a defendant convicted on a first, second or third Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”) offense.  The law also allows for some measure of leniency if a defendant’s drunk driving attorney can show a gap of ten (10) years or more between DUI offenses.  The provision that provides for the reduction in penalties is referred to as the ‘step-down” provision.  N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a)(3).  In short, this provision allows a second offender to be treated as a first offender for purposes of sentencing and a third offender to be treated as a second offender for purposes of sentencing, if there is more than ten (10) years between offenses.  This provision is particularly important when a defendant is faced with a third DUI conviction.  A third conviction carries with it a mandatory period of incarceration of at least 180 days.  A second conviction requires a period of incarceration between 48 hours and ninety (90) days.  The difference between two days in jail and six months in jail, for most defendants, is enormous and quite often life altering.

In State v. Revie, the defendant was convicted of driving under the influence in 1981 and 1982.  His third drunk driving conviction was in 1994.   Because there was more than ten (10) years between defendant’s second and third convictions, he was entitled to the benefit of the “step-down” provision.  Accordingly, when he was sentenced for the 1994 conviction he was sentenced as a second time offender.  Defendant was arrested for a fourth drunk driving offense in 2010.  After a full trial, he was found guilty.  At sentencing, counsel for Mr. Revie argued that he should be afforded the benefit of the “step-down” provision, as it had been more than ten (10) year since his most recent prior conviction.  The State argued that a DUI defendant can only take advantage of the benefits provided by N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a)(3) once.  The Municipal Court agreed with the State and refused to apply the “step-down” provision.  This decision was affirmed by the Law Division and the Appellate Division.

In reversing the Appellate Court’s decision, the Supreme Court looked to the plain language of the statute.  It noted that the statute does not include any language limiting the number of times a defendant can take advantage of the benefits afforded by the “step-down” provision.  Accordingly, it held that a defendant such as Mr. Revie can take advantage of the provision multiple times, so long as ten (10) years has elapsed between the two most recent convictions.

As an experienced drunk driving attorney in Elizabeth NJ, I don’t recall representing a client with more than ten (10) years between two of his/her prior convictions.  Therefore, this decision probably will not benefit a great number of defendants.  However, given the tendency of the Court to always construe the DUI laws in favor of the State, it is refreshing to see the Court will do the right thing when a plain reading of the statute demands same. To learn more, contact a drunk driving attorney in Elizabeth NJ at Rispoli & Borneo.