Vehicular homicide penalties are now more strict than ever before. Recent legislation signed by Gov. Chris Christie will cause a greater amount of liability for those convicted of vehicular homicide. It will now require a sizable jail sentence, as well.

The legislative hope is that more people will receive jail time or severe financial punishment for homicide related to drunk driving. As the law changes, so will yours and your attorney’s defense in court if you ever find yourself facing DWI charges. This change in legislation will immediately affect anyone charged with a DWI who cause another person’s death. Below, we outline the major differences in the law and the situations that led to its change.

The Story Behind the Law Change

In 2012, Ralph Politi Jr. was standing outside of his pickup truck when Vanessa Brown struck him with her car. In 2016, Brown was acquitted of aggravated manslaughter and vehicular homicide. The judge found Brown guilty of a DWI and two other motor-vehicle summons. Her license was suspended, and she was ordered to perform 30 days of community service. She was also charged $733. Why was this the outcome?

Traditionally, first-time offenders receive a more lenient sentence. The judge did not impose the optional 90-day jail sentence despite Brown having a prior conviction from 2009. The judge’s reasoning was because Brown had waited in custody for her trial for four years already.

Similarly, in 2004, David Heim, a 13-year-old, died after being struck by a driver that was drinking while crossing the street with his family. After a conviction, the driver spent 30 days in jail.

The public uproar over the two incidents caused legislators to propose a bill entitled “Ralph and David’s Bill,” which became New Jersey law July 21, 2017.

What the Law Was Before

Previously, courts could charge some offenses. Primarily, vehicular manslaughter was a second-degree crime with an optional prison sentence of 5 to 10 years, a fine of up to $150,000. This may sound worse. However, many charged with vehicular manslaughter are eligible for parole before they complete their prison sentence.

However, more often than not, the prosecutors charged these drivers with a DUI only. This charge, a third-degree crime, carries a much lesser penalty of up to 30 days in jail. In the case of Brown, because she had paid a fine and spent time in jail for a prior offense, the judge did not charge her at all.

What the Law is Now

The law is now known as “reckless vehicular homicide.” Ralph and David’s Bill now describes vehicular homicide as a third-degree crime punishable by a three to a five-year prison term, a fine of up to $15,000, or both.

Previous law also dictated that those who had no prior convictions would have a presumed non-incarceration charge. This new bill erases that presumption completely. The new bill essentially insists that if a drunk driver kills a person, they will serve jail or pay a hefty fine at the very least. The big difference in the new law? Anyone who commits homicide as a result of drunk driving will receive jail time if a judge convicts them of drunk driving.

“In the case of both Ralph and David, this law’s namesakes, their tragic deaths, and their family’s grief, were compounded by the leniency of their perpetrator’s sentence,” Assemblyman John McKeon (D-27(=) told The Daily Record. “This law will help close that loophole and send a stronger message that we will not tolerate this type of negligent and reckless behavior.”

Anyone driving a vehicle (automobile or boat) while under the influence of drugs are alcohol can receive vehicular homicide charges. Legislators hope that by introducing this bill — and now, law — people will be more considerate before getting behind the wheel. They also hope that those who do get behind the wheel and take a life receive the maximum punishment.

Vehicular Homicide- What You Should do Next

When you are arrested or charged, the first person you should contact is your lawyer. A good lawyer will help you receive the minimum amount of penalties (as you can get multiple charges from one incident). Your lawyer should also help you pay the least amount in fines and court fees. They will even help you potentially seal your criminal record, if possible.

You should always research attorneys before picking one. There are attorneys who specialize in every form of defense, including DUIs and DWIs. A free consultation with Douglas Herring is only a short call or email away, and his many accolades and defense successes hold testament to his ethic.