On November 22, 2019, a three-judge appellate panel decided the Passaic County case of State v. Enoc Pimental. The principal issues were whether the mandatory minimum 180-day jail sentence for N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26 Operating Motor Vehicle During Period of License Suspension violates various clauses of the constitution.
Judge Sabatino wrote for the panel and held in relevant: Given the State’s strong policy objective of deterring repeat drunk driving offenders, and our courts’ long-standing acceptance of this legitimate objective, the six-month minimum jail term prescribed by N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26 does not go beyond what is necessary to achieve that goal. Although a driver need not be under the influence of alcohol to violate N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26, the predicate conduct that puts him or her in a position to do so is his or her multiple previous instances of drunk driving. The stiff penalty imposed serves as a permissible deterrent.
In sum, defendant fails to establish that the 180-day mandatory custodial sentence imposed upon him amounts to “cruel and unusual” unconstitutional punishment. We next turn to defendant’s related arguments that the statute’s mandatory minimum jail term violates constitutional principles of due process and equal protection. Like the trial judge, we conclude these arguments have no merit.
Defendant argues the mandatory sentence imposed by N.J.S.A. 2C:40-26 violates equal protection and due process principles because increasing “eighteen-fold” the length of a sentence normally imposed for driving with a suspended license leads to what defendant contends is an “unconscionable” outcome and a “capricious” disregard for his fundamental right to liberty. We disagree.
The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment commands that no State shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” meaning that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike. City of Cleburne, Tex. v. Cleburne Living Center, 472 U.S. 432, 439 (1985). The general rule is that legislation is presumed to be valid if the statute’s classification is rationally related to a legitimate state interest. Id. at 440 (citing Schweiker v. Wilson (1981)). However, when a statute classifies by race, alienage, national origin, or imposes upon a fundamental right, the law is subject to strict scrutiny review, and will be sustained under the Equal Protection Clause only if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. Ibid. (citing McLaughlin v. Florida (1964)). When a Legislature makes classifications based on gender, review of the statute also calls for a heightened standard of review. Ibid. Otherwise, the rational basis standard applies to the classification.
The ”eighteen-fold” argument by the defense references the ten day jail sentence that a similarly-situated defendant was subject to before the law change regarding 2C:40-26. The argument looks good on paper but fails because of the high standard to be met with Equal Protection arguments.