Municipal Court Matters
Convictions for motor vehicle violations, disorderly and petty disorderly persons offenses and municipal ordinances in New Jersey municipal courts carry with them significant consequences including substantial monetary penalties, loss of driving privileges and jail time. Many municipal court “defendants” remain ignorant of such consequences despite being advised of them by the judge prior to entering their guilty pleas. On countless occasions, I have sat in municipal court and heard a person plead guilty to a charge resulting in a sentence consisting of a high fine, license suspension and/or jail sentence, the ultimate cost of which will exceed that of hiring an attorney to represent them and likely either negotiate a plea agreement carrying far lesser penalties or present a defense eliminating the charge completely.
Because it is neither the job of the judge nor the prosecutor to provide you with your defense when charged with a motor vehicle violation, disorderly persons and petty disorderly persons offense or a municipal ordinance and most people can ill afford substantial fines, the suspension of their driving privileges and/or jail time, it is imperative that when you receive either a motor vehicle or disorderly or petty disorderly persons summons, regardless of how severe you may believe the charge is, you consult an attorney with knowledge of the New Jersey Municipal Court system.
For example, a first offense Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) carries a license suspension of three (3) months or from seven (7) months to year if the offense happens outside a school zone and from one to two (2) years if within a school zone. For most people, there is no comparison between the impact of a three (3) month suspension and a two (2) year suspension on their and their family’s lives. Very few people issued a summons for DWI, however, know whether they have a defense whereby the State would not be able to carry their burden to convict them of DWI or could result in a license suspension on the lower end of the spectrum. I can assure you that the prosecutor is not going to go over your discovery with a fine-toothed comb, if at all to locate such a defense.
While most, if not all people charged with DWI, are likely retain the services of an attorney and, therefore, be aware of any possible defense to such charge, the same cannot be said for those charged with other motor vehicle violations such as operating a vehicle with suspended driving privileges and driving an uninsured vehicle, both of which could carry penalties more severe than those associated with DWI. As stated earlier, a first offense DWI conviction could result in as little as a three (3) month loss of license and likely no jail time while person found guilty of driving while suspended, regardless of the number of offense, could lose his or her driving privileges for significantly longer and end up serving a substantial jail sentence.
The same is true for driving without insurance which carries a mandatory year loss of license for a first offense and mandatory jail term of fourteen (14) days for second offense. Unless the circumstances of the DWI are particularly egregious, the longest suspension for a first offense DWI is seven (7) months while most people found guilty of a second offense DWI spend no time in jail.
A guilty plea to a seemingly innocuous charge such as exceeding the speed limit by nine (9) miles an hour could result in a six (6) month suspension depending on the amount of points you have on your license or whether or not you recently completed a state-sponsored driver improvement program. You will almost certainly receive no warning of such suspension from either the judge or prosecutor as neither is likely to be privy to information altering them of such pending license suspension.
As is the case with motor vehicle charges, pleas to disorderly persons and petty disorderly persons offenses could result in a great hardship which will likely be greater without the services of an attorney experienced in municipal court practice. Sentences for minor drug charges carry both license suspensions and jail time. Even if you are offered a diversionary program for a first offense drug charge whereby said charge will dismissed upon successful completion of a period of supervisory treatment, there is no prohibition against a judge still ordering a license suspension which ranges from six (6) months to two (2) years.
Guilty pleas to municipal ordinances can also be costly. Municipalities are vested with the authority to establish the penalties associated with pleas or findings of guilty to their respective local ordinances. Such penalties may consist of as much as two thousand dollars and ($2,000.00) and up to ninety (90) days in jail. You could end up paying a hefty fine or, although unlikely, spending a night or more in jail for a loud party your kids had while you and your spouse were out of town.
For the foregoing reasons, anytime you are issued a summons or complaint for a moving violation disorderly or petty disorderly persons offense or local ordinance, you would be best served by finding an attorney who is knowledgeable in the practice of municipal court law.