Facing a DWI in New Jersey? The Critical Difference Between Traffic Offenses and Criminal Charges

Facing a DWI in New Jersey? The Critical Difference Between Traffic Offenses and Criminal Charges

If you're facing a DWI charge in New Jersey, you're undoubtedly experiencing a whirlwind of emotions, from confusion to anxiety about the future. Driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a serious offense in New Jersey and a challenging area of law to navigate.

You're likely wondering whether a DWI is classified as a traffic violation or a criminal offense such as a misdemeanor or felony in the Garden State. The difference between these two types of offenses changes the types of legal penalties that you may face.

Generally, even though DWI is a serious traffic violation, it is not considered a criminal act in New Jersey. However, because of the serious consequences of a DUI, the state of New Jersey considers them a quasi-criminal offense. In this article, we explain the difference between traffic offenses and criminal charges, the penalties for first-time and repeat DWI offenses, and the long-term consequences of having a New Jersey DWI on your record.

What Is Considered a DWI in New Jersey?

In New Jersey, similar to other states, a DUI (driving under the influence) or DWI refers to the act of operating a motor vehicle (such as a car, truck, motorcycle, boat, airplane, dirt bike, or ATV) while impaired by alcohol or drugs. It doesn't matter if the drugs are illegal – for example, you could get pulled over for a DWI on prescription medication that makes you drowsy.

You can get charged with a DWI if you fail a field sobriety test, breathalyzer test, or blood test. The legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit in New Jersey is 0.08%.

What Happens When You Get a DWI in New Jersey?

New Jersey law takes the offense of DWI very seriously because of the dangers it poses to public safety. You may have been arrested and charged with a DWI at a traffic stop or sobriety checkpoint. You'll be booked and charged depending on how many DWI offenses you have on your record. At this point, you'll get an idea of what penalties you face.

Even if you've been charged with a DWI, that doesn't mean you're convicted yet. Every case is unique – your version of the facts may not align with what was reported in your DWI arrest. An attorney can help you determine your best avenues for defense based on your situation.

Under the law, police officers must follow proper procedures when carrying out traffic stops and sobriety checkpoints. Certain actions taken by law enforcement can invalidate the circumstances that led to your arrest. You should speak with a New Jersey DWI lawyer as soon as possible to get a better understanding of your rights and a proper strategy for your defense.

Is DWI a Criminal Offense in New Jersey?

According to New Jersey law, a DWI is a traffic offense or civil offense – not an indictable crime such as a felony or a disorderly persons offense such as a misdemeanor. There are no jury trials for DWI cases, which are instead heard and decided by a sole judge.

Your DWI won't appear on a criminal background check, but it will appear on your NJ driving record, called a Driver History Abstractindefinitely. In addition, if you get another DWI within the next 10 years, you could face even greater penalties because of the conviction already on your record. You may also have to report your conviction to your professional licensing boards, who may impose additional penalties such as license suspension.

Because of the severity of the consequences you could face, including jail time, DWI cases fall into a middle ground called quasi-criminal offenses under New Jersey law.

What Is a Quasi-Criminal Offense in New Jersey?

If you're facing a DWI in New Jersey, you could lose your license, face significant fines and penalties, or get sentenced to jail or prison time in the instance of a multiple offense. Your convictions will be recorded by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission and released to every other state in the country through the interstate compact. 

The law does not take DWI lightly, which is why in New Jersey if you're facing a DWI charge, you have the same constitutional protections as defendants facing criminal charges:

  • Your guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the highest possible standard of proof under U.S. law, usually applied to criminal cases. This is a much higher standard than the “clear and convincing” standard that applies in most civil cases, which only requires that the case seems more than 50% likely to be true.

  • You have the right to a speedy trial.

  • Police officers must have had probable cause to stop you while driving.

These constitutional rights help protect you and give you a chance to defend yourself. An experienced DWI attorney can make all the difference in how your case turns out.

Does a DWI Stay on Your Criminal Record in New Jersey?

No, a DWI does not go on your criminal record in New Jersey. However, a DWI conviction will go on your motor vehicle abstract which is essentially your NJ driving record, where it will stay forever. 

Because DWIs are not considered criminal offenses, New Jersey law does not recognize an expungement process for them. That means your driving record will show your DWI in 10, 20, or even 30 years from now and you may have to continue disclosing your conviction for the rest of your life. That's why it's critical that you get a strong legal defense as soon as possible. You have a much higher chance of beating a DWI charge before conviction than after the fact.

A skilled DWI defense attorney can evaluate your case, assess the evidence against you, and offer you options for moving forward on your defense. By getting a legal advocate on your side, you can protect your rights and work to lessen the consequences of a DWI conviction.