New law ensures stiffer penalties for drunken drivers who commit vehicle homicide

TRENTON, NJ — Bipartisan 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 is now law.

The new law, A-3686, known as “Ralph and David’s Law,” establishes a new crime of “strict liability vehicular homicide” for killing a person while drunken driving. The law is named in honor of Ralph Politi Jr. and David Heim, who were both killed by drunken drivers.

“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,” McKeon, who represents parts of Essex and Morris counties, said in a press release. “This law 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,” Jasey, who represents parts of Essex and Morris counties, said in the release. “This law sends a message, loud and clear, that we will not tolerate this type of callous disregard for another person’s life.”

“Under previous law, a person convicted of killing someone while driving drunk could be out of jail in 30 days,” Vainieri Huttle, who represents parts of Bergen County, said. “What kind of message did that send to potential offenders? Worse, what kind of message did that send to the families of these victims? This new law is about standing with them and creating a much more stringent deterrent against drunk driving.”

Politi, an East Hanover community activist and business owner, was killed by a drunken driver who swerved out of her lane and hit him as he stood by his parked pickup truck. The drunken driver recently was acquitted of first-degree aggravated manslaughter and second-degree vehicular homicide.

David, a 13-year old boy from Sussex County, was killed by a drunken 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 previous drunken driving law.

Under this new law, drunken drivers who cause a person’s death can be prosecuted strict liability vehicular homicide and required to serve a significant jail sentence. Criminal homicide will 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 is 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 new law 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 measure gained unanimous approval from both houses of the New Jersey legislature before being signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie on July 21.