(TRENTON) – Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats John McKeon, Mila Jasey and Valerie Vainieri Huttle to ensure stiff penalties for anyone who commits vehicular homicide while driving drunk cleared a Senate panel on Thursday.
The bill (A-3686), known as “Ralph and David’s Law,” would establish a new crime of “strict liability vehicular homicide” for killing a person while drunk driving. The bill is named in honor of Ralph Politi, Jr. and David Heim who were both tragically killed by drunk drivers.
“In the case of both Ralph and David, this bill’s namesakes, their tragic deaths, and their family’s grief, were compounded by the leniency of their perpetrator’s sentence,” said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris). “This legislation will help close that loophole and send a stronger message that we will not tolerate this type of negligent and reckless behavior.”
“What these families have endured is unimaginable, but hopefully this will serve as a potent reminder and a powerful deterrent for others who might be inclined to get behind the wheel drunk,” said Jasey (D-Essex/Morris). “This legislation sends a message, loud and clear, that we will not tolerate this type of callous disregard for another person’s life.”
“As it stands now, a person convicted of killing someone while driving drunk could be out of jail in 30 days,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “What kind of message does that send to potential offenders? Worse, what kind of message does that send to the families of these victims? We need to stand with them and create a much more stringent deterrent against drunk driving.”
Mr. Politi, an East Hanover community activist and business owner, was killed by a drunk driver who swerved out of her lane and hit him as he stood by his parked pickup truck. The drunk driver recently was acquitted of first-degree aggravated manslaughter and second-degree vehicular homicide.
David, a 13-year old boy from Sussex County, was also tragically killed by a drunk driver who was convicted solely of driving drunk and served only 30 days in jail, the maximum term of imprisonment for a first-offense under New Jersey’s drunk driving law.
Under this bill, drunk drivers who cause a person’s death could be prosecuted strict liability vehicular homicide and required to serve a significant jail sentence. Criminal homicide would constitute strict liability vehicular homicide when it is caused by negligently driving a motor vehicle or operating a boat in violation of the state’s drunk driving laws.
Strict liability vehicular homicide would be a crime of the third degree with no presumption of non-incarceration for first time offenders. Third degree crimes generally are punishable by a term of imprisonment of three-to-five years, a fine of up to $15,000, or both. Furthermore, the bill specifies that the presumption of non-incarceration that normally applies to persons convicted of third degree crimes who have no previous convictions does not apply.
The bill was amended in committee to eliminate the burden on the prosecution to establish a causal relationship between the conduct of the driver and the death, thereby providing that the driver would be guilty under the statute if they were determined to be drunk, with a few minor exceptions.
It would take effect immediately upon enactment.
The bill cleared the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee and will now return to the Senate President for further consideration. The Assembly approved the bill, 69-0, on May 26.