Dangerous drivers get back on the road: Are NJ’s DWI laws too weak?
Victims-rights advocates are once again questioning New Jersey's drunk-driving laws after authorities pinned an Easter-weekend fatal crash in Hunterdon County on a man with a long history of violations.
Frank Cabezas, 23, of Readington, is now facing two counts of second degree death by auto and multiple counts of assault after allegedly driving drunk and causing a head-on collision that killed an elderly Flemington couple March 26.
This tragedy comes after he was arrested just three weeks earlier on a DWI charge and after he had his license suspended five times over the past fours years for underage drinking, possessing drugs, speeding, careless driving, not showing up in court and other offenses.
His license was valid during the Easter weekend crash, authorities have said. He was on probation for a 2014 drug conviction.
Meanwhile, 40-year-old Burlington County resident Susan Hyland, who struck and killed 16-year-old Quason Turner on Monday in Pennsauken, had 39 license suspensions.
“New Jersey has fairly decent DUI laws, but they’re not tough enough at all,” said Brandon English, the program director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) New Jersey.
He said a report released last year gave the state a 2 out of a possible 5-star rating because our laws aren’t strong enough.
“We’ve seen countless injuries and fatalities, even over the last year, while someone was driving drunk on a suspended license,” he said. “Driving while suspended is very common. About 50 to 75 percent of drivers with a suspended license are actually driving."
NJ's drunk-driving laws
A first-time offender convicted of driving under the influence faces a loss of his or her driver's license anywhere from three months to a year, fines of more than $4,000 over a three-year period, up to 30 days in prison and 12 to 48 hours of community service.
If someone is convicted with a blood-alcohol content greater than 0.15 percent, a judge may also order the person to install an ignition interlock device that he or she must breath into in order to be able to start their car.
A second offense within 10 years can result in the loss of a driver license for two years, and a third offense could mean 10 years without a driver license.
Because MADD believes many people with suspended licenses continue to drive, English said his organization is now working to pass a law that would mandate the installation of an ignition device for anyone convicted of any DWI offense, not just those with a high blood-alcohol level.
“This will help curb people driving while suspended, and keep a lot of drunk drivers off the road and actually help save lives,” he said.
A similar piece of legislation was passed by state lawmakers last spring, but Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed the bill because he did not favor reducing driver license suspension period from seven to three months.
Those in favor of the shorter suspension time had argued it would allow convicted drivers to be able to get back to work more quickly and pay for, among other things, the ignition interlock on their vehicle.
“Our laws are decent but we have a long way to go in New Jersey. We have some decent laws but they definitely need to be strengthened,” English said.
Enforcing laws on the books
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, the chairman of the Transportation Committee, said the state should first look at whether the laws are being enforced before deciding whether to toughen them.
“New Jersey already has some substantial driving-under-the-influence laws and the key to successfully using those laws is to make sure they are adequately prosecuted and we need to be vigilant making sure that individuals who have violated the law are prosecuted to the fullest extent that the law allows.”
He said the problem is with people who constantly break the law, so the question becomes “do you ratchet up all levels of offense because you have some drivers who do not obey any of the laws?”
Wisniewaski said that while expanding New Jersey’s interlock law could help, some chronic drunk drivers might figure out a way around it.
“That becomes a question of enforcement, and how vigilant can you be,” he said.