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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

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Ignition Lock Awaits 1st Time DWI Offenders

Avalon Police Officer Nick Brady behind the wheel of the department's beach vehicle that is used to patrol and spot alcohol users along the oceanfront.

By Karen Knight

COURT HOUSE – A state law expanding the ignition lock requirement to include all first-time driving while intoxicated (DWI) offenders is being hailed as a hopeful deterrent to drunk driving by local police departments, as well as a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) representative, who is a survivor of a DWI accident.
There is a trade-off, as it eliminates license suspensions for first-timers whose blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was slightly above the legal limit, or between .08% and .10%. 
The law’s apparent goal is to enable those convicted to keep their license, so they can work, but prevent them from driving if they have been drinking. 
Local Police Hopeful 
Representatives from Avalon, Lower Township and Stone Harbor police departments contacted about the law and DWI arrests were cautious about the expected outcome, waiting to see how it would be enforced, especially for those who drive for a living.
“Our goal is compliance to not drink and drive, so any effort in this direction is a good effort,” noted Lt. Donald Vanaman, patrol bureau and operations commander, Lower Township Police Department. “However, it could create a habit that the driver knows when he or she can drink, but they might be late for work (because they are still intoxicated).”
“If you drive for your job, will your work install an interlock device,” asked Lt. Douglas Whitten, commanding officer, Investigative Division, Lower Township Police Department. “The end goal is not to arrest people. It’s to get them to stop driving while drinking.”
Avalon Police Chief Jeffrey Christopher said he would “refrain from giving his personal opinion about the law until he had more information,” but noted, “The fact is, drinking and driving kills, and we must do all we can to deter people from making the decision to get behind the wheel after drinking. People must be held accountable when they make this decision. I sincerely hope this new law has the desired effect of both.”  
Stone Harbor Police Chief Tom Schutta said he “thinks the change in the law will strengthen the deterrence factor, but I believe this a multi-facet issue that will continue to require proactive policing, ongoing education and the increased availability of ridesharing services.”
34th State to Require Ignition InterLock
For first-time offenders with a BAC of .08 to .10%, the ignition interlock will have to be used for six months, following the license suspension of 30 days (previously three months).
One local business that installs the devices said they cost about $75 a month, depending on the company used. The length of the contract depends on the court sentence. 
New Jersey became the 34th state to sign the ignition-lock requirement, according to Steven Benvenisti, volunteer chairman, New Jersey Chapter of MADD. Benvenisti, who campaigned for the legislation, called it “exciting,” claiming it has been shown to reduce fatalities caused by drunk driving in other states. 
Benvenisti was a college senior when he was severely injured by a drunk driver as a pedestrian. He spent five months in the hospital, 15 major surgeries, struggled to walk again and finally fully recovered from a traumatic brain injury. His experience led to a career as a trial attorney representing injured accident victims and volunteering with MADD.
“Fifty to 75% of people convicted of DWI who have suspended licenses continue to operate without a license,” he said. “Once convicted, people still have obligations in life. They have to work, pay bills, support their families. This law is a win-win because it allows people to continue with their obligations, but prevents them from driving while drinking.”
Citizens Credited
Across Cape May County, local police credited “vigilant citizens using their cell phones to videotape erratic driving,” frequent anti-drunk driving campaigns and overall education and awareness as elements in their goal to eliminate DWI. 
Vanaman, a Lower Township police officer for 17 years, and in law enforcement for 25 years, credits the “eyes and ears of the community” with increasingly videotaping erratic drivers and calling it to the department’s attention. 
Patrol officers, he said, are also “extremely vigilant,” taking extensive training on what is required under the laws, what to look for during traffic stops, accidents or other instances, testing options, including for drug-induced driving when alcohol isn’t present, but behavior indicates something is impairing driving, and how to properly document and improve convictions. 
Ride-share Options Help 
The education has paid off, according to Vanaman, because Lower Township Police Department boasts an 84%-92% conviction rate, compared to a state average of 70%. Arrests for DWI in Lower Township are as follows:
* 65 in 2012
* 72 in 2013
* 57 in 2014
* 65 in 2015
* 70 in 2016
* 63 in 2017
* 73 in 2018
* 90 in 2019
* 8 in 2020 (as of Feb. 11)
What “perplexes” Vanaman is that the availability of ride-share services doesn’t seem to be used as much in Lower Township, impacting the DWI arrest rate, as can be seen by a 24% increase from 2018 to 2019. 
“It could be a socio-economic thing, that people can’t afford the services, but I don’t understand why they aren’t being used more,” he noted.
The use of alternate transportation services seems to be affecting arrests in Avalon and Stone Harbor.  
“We have seen a noticeable decrease in DWIs,” said Avalon Police Chief Christopher. “Not necessarily in the past five years, but if you go back seven years, you can see a noticeable decrease. I attribute that to Avalon’s use of a jitney service, as well as the availability of services such as Uber and Lyft.”
Christopher said there were 50 DWI arrests in 2012; 26, in 2013; 18 in 2014; eight in 2015; 10 in 2016; 15 in 2017; 13 in 2018; and 13 in 2019.
Stone Harbor Police Chief Schutta noted, in 2015, there were 11 arrests for driving under the influence (DUI); 12 in 2016; seven in 2017; seven in 2018; and four in 2019. “The decrease in DUI arrests have been quite noticeable year after year since the offering of the trolley service and Uber,” he said. “I think they are a great thing.”
“MADD’s mission is to end drunk driving, so we encourage people to use alternate transportation methods, call a friend or family member who is sober, or stay where you are,” Benvenisti said. “Sadly; however, even with all these alternate methods, we still lose 10,000 people a year to drunk and drugged driving.”
Campaigns Target Drunk Driving
As part of their efforts to prevent drunk driving, Avalon, Lower Township and Stone Harbor police departments apply for grants annually to subsidize campaigns targeting drunk driving, conducting undercover work to prevent the sale of alcohol to underage individuals and to pay for extra targeted enforcement during holidays and other times.
The departments also apply for a grant annually, through the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, called “Cops N Shops.” This is funded by the state, and consists of officers working in plainclothes throughout establishments to prevent the sale of alcohol to individuals who are under the legal drinking age.  
In 2019, nine individuals were charged with misstating their age to gain entry into Avalon establishments; five in 2018; and seven in 2017.
In Stone Harbor, Schutta said there were four arrests for underage drinking in 2015, 10 in 2016, six in 2017, two in 2018 and nine in 2019. 
Police Patrol Establishments for Compliance
The police departments alsoinspect establishments that serve alcohol and packaged goods to ensure they comply with the local, state and federal guidelines. 
Inspections include a thorough review of daily receipts, bank statements, payroll, daily expenditures, deposit slips, documentation of checking and a review of the current employee list. Random inspections are also conducted.
“Most bars and restaurants do a good job in screening,” according to Whitten, who has been a Lower Township police officer for 25 years, “and liquor stores do a good job in detecting bad IDs. The issue comes when someone who is of age meets an underage person in the parking lot and buys alcohol for them.”  
Beaches Patrolled for Alcohol
Avalon and Stone Harbor police departments patrol their beaches. Whitten said Lower Township doesn’t patrol the beaches on the Delaware Bay because the New Jersey State Police and Coast Guard patrol them and the waterways. Diamond Beach has an officer who tends to the beach there.
In 2018, the Avalon Police Department purchased a Polaris beach patrol vehicle, which is used to patrol the beaches. Individuals observed with open containers of alcohol are issued a borough ordinance summons. Underage drinkers are dealt with accordingly, according to Christopher.   
“You will see the number of summons issued in 2018 and 2019 were higher,” he said. “I attribute this increase to the additional patrols on the beach using the beach vehicle. We typically have two patrol boats on the water in the summer. There were no boaters found under the influence.” 
In Avalon, in 2015, there were 14 arrests for underage alcohol, 16 in 2016, eight in 2017, three in 2018 and 28 in 2019.
There were seven arrests, in 2015, for alcohol on the beach, 22 in 2016, two in 2017, 35 in 2018 and 28 in 2019. There were no arrests for alcohol on a boat from 2015-2019.
In Stone Harbor, four arrests occurred in 2016 and 2017 for alcohol in public, 11 in 2018 and 51 in 2019. 
“I attribute the increase in underage drinking and alcohol in public violations to a more proactive patrol of the beaches,” Schutta said, noting “oftentimes, the underage drinking summonses will be accompanied by an open-container-in-public citation, as well.”
“We try to be proactive,” Whitten said. 
“Compliance is the goal,” said Vanaman. “No drinking and driving. If someone wants to roll the dice, they will have to deal with the consequences.” 
To contact Karen Knight, email kknight@cmcherald.com.

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