The Appellate Division of the State Superior Court recently held that a trial judge in Cape May County must reconsider a 30 year prison sentence he imposed on a drunk driver who caused a crash that resulted in the death of another vehicle's driver and seriously injured the passengers in that vehicle.
In State v Lawless, the Court held that the trial judge should not have considered the accident's impact on the injured passengers because the defendant pleaded guilty only to aggravated manslaughter and driving while intoxicated ("DWI"), and not vehicular assault as to the injured passengers. At the time of sentencing, trial judges are required to perform an analysis of the statutory aggravating and mitigating factors, determine which factors apply to the facts of the particular case, and determine whether the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors, or vice versa. The sentencing judge in Lawless placed great weight on the harm inflicted by the defendant on the passengers as an aggravating factor, which the Appellate Court found to be in error because the defendant did not plead guilty to a crime directly impacting those passengers. The Appellate Court also found fault with the sentencing judge's decision to give great weight as an aggravating factor to the defendant's numerous prior DWI convictions, which the sentencing judge characterized as a prior criminal record. DWI is not a crime under New Jersey law; hence it was erroneous for the sentencing judge to consider the defendant's prior DWI convictions as a "prior criminal record."