Interlock Decisions on Sentencing: Who Decides?

Be Aware of Who Determines the Ignition Interlock Requirements of Your Sentence if Convicted of DWI in New Jersey

Who Decides the Penalty for Interlock in NJ? Importantly, the New Jersey Supreme Court determined which entity hears a defendant’s credit request regarding an ignition interlock device (IID) installation portion of a Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) sentence, spelling significant implications for defendants in drunk driving cases moving forward. Which entity hears a motion for an IID credit, the sentencing court or the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC), was the issue before the Supreme Court.

Lessons Learned from State v. Coviello

In State v. Coviello, the defendant’s DWI sentence included a two-year license suspension followed by a two-year IID installation. She did not install the IID; instead, her two-year license suspension was extended to four years, covering the period that would have been the two-year IID sentence portion. In seeking credit, she was unable to get past the jurisdiction issue.

The facts of the case are uncontested. The police arrested the defendant after finding her passed out in her idling car. There was evidence in the passenger seat of her alcohol intake. The state charged her with disorderly conduct and a DWI to which she pled guilty. Since it was her second DWI, her sentence was one-year probation, a suspended eight-day jail sentence, two years of driver’s license suspension, community service, 48 hours at an intoxicated driver resource center, and two years with an IID to start after her two-year license suspension expired. The defendant failed to install the IID, alleging that she could not afford a car and did not have another one at her disposal.

Motion for Credit on the IID Portion of a DWI Sentence in NJ

The defendant’s motion for a credit on the IID portion of her sentence under Rule 7:9-4 came five years after the sentencing and the completion of her sentence terms, except for the IID. To support her motion, the defendant contended that being poor placed her in a position of never having a license since she could not fulfill the portion of the sentence that required her to have a car. She further contended that the legislature could not have intended such a result, the statute is ambiguous, and thus, the rule of lenity should apply. What is the rule of lenity you may wonder? This rule requires a criminal court to rule in favor of the defendant against the state if a statute is ambiguous.

Is the Interlock Component of a NJ DUI Sentence an Administrative Issue?

The prosecution contended that the MVC has jurisdiction over IID credit, not the trial court, and the defendant’s statutory arguments have no merit. The trial court agreed with the prosecution, as did the Appellate Court, who characterized the defendant’s request as an administrative issue, not a sentencing issue. On appeal, the defendant argued the strict application of the IID requirement violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the constitution for those who cannot afford a vehicle. However, both courts never touched the merits of the case as they decided up front that the jurisdiction issue made entertaining her request unnecessary.

On appeal to the NJ Supreme Court, the Attorney General, appearing by amicus brief and as counsel to the MVC, supported the MVC’s position that it was not the MVC’s role to decide such an issue. The Supreme Court considered the AG’s amicus brief in its decision. The Supreme Court reviewed the DWI statute (N.J.S.A. 39:4-50) from its inception to its later modifications, pulling out the relevant details to support the judge’s sentence of a second-time offender. The court also noted the MVC’s role in reinstating a license after a completed DUI or DWI sentence. The judge oversees sentencing and notifying the MVC, which ensures the device is installed before reinstating driving privileges.

Remedies and Defenses if You Can’t Install an IID in New Jersey

A critical provision of the law includes a remedy for those who do not install an IID as the court ordered. According to N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, those who fail to install the ignition interlock device get a one-year license suspension on top of any other ordered suspensions or revocations unless the defendant has a good reason for noncompliance. According to case law, the courts determine whether the defendant has a good enough reason for failing to comply with the IID sentence portion. In fact, the 2019 amended statute, N.J.S.A. 39:4-50.17(c), requires a defendant to swear under oath that they do not own or otherwise have access to a vehicle to extend a license suspension or revocation for the IID time. In other words, the law provides for a situation like Coviello’s.

The Role of the MVC Regarding NJ Driver’s Licenses

The court went on to clarify the role of the MVC regarding driver’s licenses. The MVC’s administrative hearings address suspensions, revocations, and driving privileges denial but not override judicial sentences that mandate license suspension or revocation. It is the courts’ role to sentence defendants. On the other hand, administrative agencies, like the MVC, must enforce the court’s sentence. And the legislative function is to determine how and when a defendant must install an IID. In essence, the MVC’s administrative role is to follow court orders and regulate the installation of the IID, which the Supreme Court termed a “ministerial” function.

Who Decides Your IID Sentence in a DWI Case in New Jersey?

In New Jersey, it is up to the court to decide questions regarding ignition interlock device sentencing for driving while intoxicated. When defendants are unable financially to install IID’s, they may petition the sentencing court to accept the additional year license suspension in the law for failure to install the IID. In that way, a defendant is not penalized for poverty, an unintended result of the DWI statute. With the Coviello decision, the court pulled together the DWI statute and amendments to demonstrate that the mechanism to do so is already in place and that the trial court is the only authority to determine whether a sentence can be modified by substitution for valid reasons. It is important for other people charged with DWI in New Jersey who cannot fulfill sentencing requirements due to unemployment, financial destitution, or other reasons.

The Supreme Court in Coviello paved a more definitive path for DWI defendants to motion trial courts in situations such as Coviello’s. Since the defendant’s motion regarding sentencing, and the judiciary’s function is to sentence, primarily, the trial court can make a declaratory ruling regarding the defendant’s request to credit her the IID time by her additional license suspension period. The trial court can determine if she has valid reasons for such a declarative relief. In the end, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court to reverse its jurisdictional issue and decide the motion on its merits.

Better Yet, Avoid a New Jersey Drunk Driving Conviction in the First Place

DWI defense attorneys such as ours at The Tormey Law Firm stay up on recent case decisions and important legal changes and clarifications that may be helpful to our clients. Of course, the best way to avoid such a predicament is to prevent a DWI conviction entirely. If your arrest for a DWI in New Jersey has you worried and confused, contact a DWI lawyer at our New Jersey defense firm to advise you on what options you may have and explore any defenses that you may have to the charges. Your constitutional rights are significant, and the police may not deprive you of them.

Plus, the standards and protocols for driving while intoxicated arrests and investigations are extensive, which leaves ample opportunity for mistakes and errors that can be used to defend your case. If we can find holes and inaccuracies in the evidence or the process that was followed to retrieve it, your DWI charges may not stand. Many possibilities exist for your case’s dismissal. Find out how we can help you fight the charges by contacting us for a free consultation. We welcome your calls and requests to speak with an attorney regarding your DUI case anytime. Simply call (201)-556-1570.


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