Court decision sets guidelines for fair and uniform sentencing
In 2010, a New Jersey Supreme Court decision set limits on certain driver's license suspensions. Before this decision, the law (N.J.S.A. 39:5-31) did not limit the length of time for which a judge could suspend the license of a person who had willfully violated a motor vehicle or traffic law. Municipal and superior court judges used their own personal opinion and judgment to decide whether or not to suspend a license and for how long.
Judges must now use a list of seven factors to decide whether or not to suspend licenses. These factors are also supposed to help judges decide the length of time to suspend licenses. They must also give a specific reason for the suspension.
What factors must a judge use to decide whether or not to suspend a driver’s license?
Judges must consider the following factors:
The specific facts about the defendant’s actions, including:
whether or not the actions were high risk;
whether those actions caused danger to the public;
whether the actions caused physical harm; and
whether the actions caused property damage;
The defendant’s driving record, including:
the defendant’s age and length of time as a licensed driver;
the number of past motor vehicle violations;
how serious they were; and
how often they occurred;
Whether the defendant’s driving record shows that it is likely that he or she will break another motor vehicle law;
Whether the character and attitude of the defendant indicates that he or she is likely to commit another violation;
Whether the defendant’s actions were a result of circumstances that are likely to happen again;
Whether a license suspension would cause excessive hardship to the defendant and/or others who rely on the defendant for income and other necessary things; and
The need to suspend the defendant’s license in order to discourage him or her from violating the motor vehicle laws again and any other important factors that the court identifies.
Judges must also give reasons for suspending a driver's license
In its opinion, the Supreme Court noted that having a driver’s license in New Jersey is “nearly a necessity” for most people because driving is the way that most people travel to work and do chores every day.
Because driving is so important, the Supreme Court now requires judges to give good reasons for suspending a driver’s license. The Court decided that if judges give reasons for suspension of licenses, people will be treated more fairly. And people who break the same motor vehicle laws in the same way will receive the same punishment.
The effect of this law on prisoners reentering their communities
The driver’s license of a formerly-incarcerated person may be suspended for a variety of reasons, including failure to pay fines and/or appear in court, certain drug-related offenses, and violations of the motor vehicle and traffic laws. A driver’s license suspension is a major obstacle to a person’s effective reentry into the community. This law should help people who face driver’s license suspensions for “willful violations” of the motor vehicle and traffic laws.
LSNJ’s Prisoner Reentry Project
For more information about this law or about prisoner reentry, contact Legal Services of New Jersey’s Prisoner Reentry Project (PREP). PREP provides assistance in civil matters to eligible inmates and those with criminal records to help them successfully transition back into society. Contact PREP by calling LSNJ’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529). Outside of New Jersey, please call 732-572-9100 and ask to be transferred to the hotline.