Drunk Driving (39:4-50) in New Jersey is a very serious traffic offense. Although not technically a Title 2C criminal offense, it is widely considered a quasi-criminal offense by New Jersey criminal defense practitioners. Interestingly, in 2019, New Jersey drunk driving law underwent some significant changes, making license suspension penalties for first time offenders dependent on their blood alcohol content (or BAC). In some cases, first time offenders stand to lose their licenses for less time than under the old law.
The Requirement of Good Moral Character
Notwithstanding these changes, it is important to distinguish between New Jersey state penalties and federal collateral consequences if you are not a United States citizen. A drunk driving conviction in NJ can have a number of potential adverse immigration consequences including denial of a DACA application, revocation of one’s visa, or even a discretionary denial of some benefit. In the context of citizenship, any drunk driving incident can implicate a plethora of issues that can be investigated and evaluated by an immigration officer. It may raise the question of alcohol dependency or addiction, or in most cases, whether an applicant has sufficiently demonstrated good moral character. If an applicant is applying for citizenship based on five years of permanent residence, any arrests, bad acts, or questionable conduct reflecting on the applicant’s character during the five-year period preceding the application may be considered. (Similarly, if an applicant is applying based on three years, the statutory period under review will be three years.)
New Policy: Two or More DWIs
Under recent changes in immigration policy, USCIS has now adopted a harsher stance against individuals found guilty of drunk driving who are applying to become United States citizens.
Under previous practice, immigration officers were accorded wide discretion in determining the effect of certain offenses within the statutory period. Now, pursuant to agency guidelines implementing caselaw decided in 2019, two or more convictions for drunk driving will create a presumption that good moral character has not been established. In other words, the officer will be inclined to deny the case unless the applicant can persuade the adjudicator otherwise. Importantly, the applicant must have been convicted, not merely arrested or accused. Also, the applicant may rebut the presumption by presenting evidence that good moral character has been established despite the convictions. Practically speaking, however, a presumption creates a formidable obstacle that if not overcome, can spell a denial.
What About One DWI?
Fortunately, the new policy hinges on the presence of two or more convictions within the statutory period. If an applicant has only one conviction, it is still quite possible to become a United States Citizen. That being said, the applicant will still need to demonstrate good moral character and should expect many questions about the incident. The applicant should be prepared to explain the circumstances behind the allegation in detail, present mitigating factors or extenuating circumstances, and explain how this blemish should not give rise to a negative assessment of one’s character. Police reports, certified dispositions, and any other records pertaining to the incident may be requested. Depending on the individual facts of the case as well as the attitude of the immigration officer, this can be challenging.
For more than twenty years, our office in New Jersey has helped many green card holders with criminal arrests and convictions overcome good moral character problems and become US Citizens. For more information on how a drunk driving arrest can affect your citizenship application, and more importantly, how it may be overcome, please contact our office for a confidential consultation.