Up until last week, it was possible to kill someone while driving drunk in NJ and escape with a mere 30 days in prison. Only drunk driving accidents that fit into the state’s first- or second-degree crimes would result in substantial prison sentences. With the passage of a new law, that has now changed.
Dubbed Ralph and David’s Law, the new statute creates a new crime – third-degree strict liability homicide – for causing a death by driving a car or operating a boat while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The law is named for two separate individuals whose deaths highlight the weaknesses in New Jersey’s prior drunk driving statutes. In both cases, the intoxicated drivers who killed David Heim and Ralph Politi, Jr. were acquitted of charges that would have resulted in substantial prison sentences. Until this new law, the only other offense jurors, judges and prosecutors could consider was drunken driving, which carries a penalty of up to 30 days in jail. The law was passed as a result of public outrage over the light sentences individuals faced after killing someone while driving.
David, 13, of Hampton, was killed when he was hit by a drunken driver as he was crossing Route 206 with his mother and siblings in 2014. The motorist, not charged with vehicular homicide, was convicted of drunken driving and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Politi, an East Hanover business owner and community activist, was killed in 2012 by a drunk driver who swerved out of her lane and hit him as he stood by his parked pickup truck. The driver was charged with aggravated manslaughter and vehicular homicide, but was found not guilty in March of 2016.
The new law allows prosecutors to charge offenders with strict liability vehicular homicide or reckless vehicular homicide, depending on the circumstances. Reckless vehicular homicide would involve negligence on the part of the driver or boat operator.
Most third-degree crimes do not require any mandatory prison time for first time offenders, but Ralph and David’s Law imposes a minimum three- to five-year sentence for those convicted.
This new law is a wake up call to those who believe that driving while intoxicated is still an acceptable option. Drunk driving ruins lives, often not the driver, but innocent victims. With a plethora of technologies providing solutions, including Uber and Lyft, in addition to cabs or designated drivers, there should be less of a reason than ever to risk driving while intoxicated. This law now imposes the kind of penalty that should be required when making a reckless decision that takes the life of an innocent individual.