Panel OKs Bill Upping Fines for Talking or Texting While Driving

June 11, 2012

The New Jersey Senate Law and Public Safety Committee on Monday recommended increased fines for texting or talking on a cell phone while driving.

The committee passed a measure, S-69, that would raise the current $100 fine to $200 for a first offense, $400 for a second offense and $600 for a third or subsequent offense.

Third and subsequent offenders would receive three motor vehicle penalty points and could face a 90-day drivers’ license suspension.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, testified that research has shown that drunken drivers have reaction times 10 times better than drivers texting or talking on a cell phone.

“We have to address this like we did with drunken driving,” he said. “We’ve tried a slap on the wrist; now it’s time for a slap to the face.”

The committee also passed a resolution for a constitutional amendment to give judges authority to deny bail for defendants charged with murder, kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault and other aggravated sex crimes.

The amendment, SCR-107, would bring New Jersey in line with federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court, in U.S. v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739 (1987), upheld 18 U.S.C. § 3142(f), which allows defendants to be held without bail.

A 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Justice found 33 percent of defendants on bail committed another offense.

“This is about keeping the worst of the worst off the streets,” said one of the sponsors, committee Chairman Donald Norcross, D-Camden. The other sponsor is Senator Kevin O’Toole, R-Passaic.

Assistant Attorney General B. Stephan Finkel urged the panel to pass the legislation.

“This is a common sense solution to a real problem,” he said, particularly in cases involving domestic violence and gang violence.

The committee also advanced a bill to increase the mandatory prison sentence for a adult who sexually assaults a person under the age of 13.

The legislation, S-380/642, is named the “Jessica Lunsford Act” after a 9-year-old Florida girl who was raped and murdered by a previously convicted sex offender, John Couey, in 2005.

A first-degree sex offense currently carries a 10- to 20-year prison term. The bill, sponsored by Senators Diane Allen, R-Burlington, and Thomas Kean Jr., R-Union, would increase that sentence to a term of 25 years to life in prison, of which 25 years would have to be served before the person convicted would be eligible for parole.

The legislation also would make it a crime for a person to harbor or hide a sex offender within an area considered illegal for a sex offender to live. A person convicted of doing so would face a mandatory 2-year prison term.

All of the bills passed the committee without opposition and now go to the full Senate for a floor vote.

By: Michael Booth