CAMDEN, N.J. – Being too intoxicated to know right from wrong is no defense to the charge of letting another drunk drive your car, a Camden County, N.J., judge ruled.
In a trial court decision approved for publication on June 14, Superior Court Judge William Cook found that being drunk does not create the lack of knowledge defendants need to avoid prosecution under N.J.S.A. 39:4-50(a) for putting their vehicles in the hands of someone who is drunk.
The case, State v. Zanger, 51-2003, is one of first impression. But lawyers who represent drivers say the ruling is another example of New Jersey's near-zero tolerance for defense in alcohol-related offenses, particularly in cases where, like this one, a death ensued.
Michael Zanger was charged with drunken driving under the "permitting" law on April 20, 2003, after his car, with his friend Zachary Romanet at the wheel, crashed in Pennsauken, N.J., killing Romanet.
Zanger appealed his municipal court conviction, arguing that because he was drunk when he let Romanet use the car, he could not reasonably know Romanet was drunk and therefore was not guilty.
According to Cook's opinion, Zanger, 20, and Romanet, 18, started their day by smoking marijuana in the early afternoon. When they left at around 7 p.m. for a basketball game in Philadelphia, Zanger gave Romanet the keys to the car and Romanet drove. At the game, they each drank eight or nine 16-ounce Miller Lite beers. When they left the game, Zanger did not feel "unbelievably drunk," but felt too impaired to drive.
Neither man wore a seat belt. Zanger was asleep when the car went out of control, struck a curb and flipped, tossing Romanet out. Romanet's blood alcohol level was .17 percent; Zanger's was .21.
Zanger's lawyer, Robert Harbeson, argued that his client's insobriety negated a finding that he knew or should have known Romanet was intoxicated, as required by cases interpreting N.J.S.A.
Judge Cook, applying the objective standards used in cases of criminal intent, reasoned that "a permittor who voluntarily becomes impaired or intoxicated by alcohol, narcotics or drugs should be held to have knowledge of the permittee's impaired condition to drive, if a sober person of ordinary intelligence and in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known of the permittee's impaired condition to drive. Self-induced intoxification or insobriety does not afford a permittor an excuse or defense," he concluded.
"Even if a permittor lacks actual knowledge of the permittee's impaired condition to drive, he is nonetheless guilty if he 'reasonably should have known' of the permittee's impaired condition to drive," the judge said.