Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Charles Mainor, Daniel Benson, Benjie Wimberly, Whip Wilson, Shavonda Sumter and Joseph Lagana to increase the penalties for driving drunk with a minor as a passenger cleared the Assembly 71-1-1 on Thursday.
Under the bill (A-825), a parent or guardian convicted of drunk driving with a minor as a passenger would be guilty of a crime of the fourth degree, punishable by imprisonment of up to 18 months, a fine of up to $10,000 or both, if the violation results in bodily injury to the minor. Drunk driving with a minor currently is considered a disorderly persons offense, punishable by imprisonment of up to six months, a fine of up to $1,000 or both.
“Driving drunk is irresponsible in any circumstance, but it’s even more offensive to do so with a child in the vehicle,” said Mainor (D-Hudson), chair of the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee. “A disorderly persons offense is not enough for driving drunk with a minor. We need to send a stronger message that we find such dangerous behavior completely unacceptable.”
Should a minor suffer serious bodily injury – defined as bodily injury that creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious, permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ – the driver would be guilty of a third degree crime under the bill. A third degree crime is punishable by three to five years of imprisonment, a fine of up to $15,000 or both.
“We’re talking about child endangerment,” said Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “Drunk driving is wholly unacceptable, but it is even more delinquent when a minor is a passenger of the vehicle. A tougher penalty makes it clear that we will not tolerate this type of recklessness when it comes to the life of a child in New Jersey.”
“Parents and guardians have a responsibility to protect the children under their watch,” Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic). “It’s incredibly irresponsible to get behind the wheel while intoxicated. If they choose to operate a vehicle under the influence and their irresponsibility causes serious injury to the passenger, then they should be ready to face the consequences.”
“For adults, getting behind the wheel while intoxicated is a choice. For the young people traveling with them, however, being in a car with a drunk driver may be the only way to get to school or to activities,” said Wilson (D-Camden/Gloucester), who as a lieutenant with the Camden Police Department witnessed the 1995 death of four children killed in a drunk driving crash. “This bill is about keeping New Jersey’s children safe, which should always be a top priority.”
“Anyone who has the immense responsibility of transporting a child needs to take that responsibility very seriously,” said Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Drinking and driving with a minor in tow is the height of irresponsibility, and this bill clarifies that such behavior simply cannot be tolerated in our state.”
“Driving under the influence of alcohol is reckless in and of itself, but when kids who may not even comprehend the danger at hand or be in a position to get help become part of that equation, it just takes the potential for tragedy to a new level,” said Lagana (D-Bergen/Passaic). “This legislation will serve as a deterrent to such behavior so that we can protect children in New Jersey.”
The bill now awaits further Senate consideration.