NJ Municipal Court Made Easy; a Tutorial Designed to Assist a Motorist Defending a New Jersey Speeding Ticket or Other Nj Traffic Summons
Author: Ric Futerfas, Esq.
Most individuals in NJ Municipal Court elect not to engage counsel, often to their own peril. Plainly speaking, an unrepresented defendant doesn't know what he's getting into. They think it will be easy to figure out, after all, it's just a traffic ticket...but they often end up walking around aimlessly, spending hours in Court and without the slightest notion on how to address their matter. In contrast, an attorney knows the viable defenses, knows rules of the game, knows who to talk to, where to go, where to stand, what to say and often the players involved (the Prosecutor, Officer and Judge). This tutorial is designed to help those befuddled defendants tread the murky waters of appearing in NJ Municipal Court without Counsel. Remember, I'm not suggesting you should go without counsel, quite the contrary. But if you do, you will find some if not all of the following material helpful. The question and answer format is straight forward and easy to read, taking the defendant from the point where he is issued the ticket to the ultimate disposition of his matter, paying the fines at the window (thats right, you may well plead or be found guilty of something).
My ticket has a Date to Appear listed. Do I just show up on that date?
At every Court session in every Municipal Court there are a handful of people who find themselves in a frustrating predicament that requires them to make an unnecessary extra Court appearance. If you look at your traffic summons you will see toward the bottom the words "Notice to Appear" with a Court date written just underneath. Understandably many look at that language, see the Court date and conclude that they should appear on that date and time. Not so fast. To the left of the Court date is a box that is either checked or not checked "Court Appearance Required." If it is checked then yes, you should appear for Court whether you want to or not. However, if it is not checked, one of two things has happened. Either A) the officer neglected to check Court Appearance Required, or more likely B) you don't have to appear. A clue to what is going on is on the back of your ticket. Turn the ticket over and two thirds of the way down in red writing it states:
"If you wish to plead not guilty, you must notify the court at the address and telephone number as shown below at least 7 days prior to the Court date listed on the front of this ticket. If you fail to notify the Court, it may be necessary for you to make additional Court appearances."
What does that mean? It means that if you had a payable ticket that is not checked "Court Appearance Required" and showed up for Court without calling first, you have wasted a trip. Court is aggravating enough without having to be told you have to come back another time. The "Date to Appear" is not the date to appear if that box isn't checked. In actuality, it is the date by which you should pay your ticket if you plan to pay the fine. If you want to go to Court and work out a deal with the Prosecutor, make sure you call the Court ahead of time. (7 days, by the way, is a guideline more than any hard and fast rule). That way the Court will schedule the matter when the officer is available. Invariably 5 or 6 people show up at Court having read what looks like the plain language on the ticket and they are turned away and told they will be receiving a new Court date in the mail.
My notice for Court says that I should appear at 9:00 am. Should I get there early so I can get the jump on everyone else?
It's probably not necessary. Municipal Court is very much described by the familiar adage "hurry up and wait." Your notice indicates a specific start time but the Court will hardly ever start at the start time. Some Courts deviate from this general practice but most often the Judge will not take the bench for up to an hour after Court officially starts. You should get to Court by the start time but getting to Court half an hour early provides no distinct advantage.
I have to wait an hour for the Judge to take the bench? Why?
You might think the Judge, being learned, is reading law books and brushing up on his Judge skills but what he is usually doing is simply waiting for the Prosecutor to get his act together. Usually, the Court session is largely run by the Prosecutor who works out all of the matters he can to present to the Judge. He sets up the pins and the Judge knocks them down. If the Judge were to come out earlier, he would say his opening remarks (discussed later) and then have no cases to move. He would sit there scratching his head until the Prosecutor put something in front of him. So, believe it or not, for expediency, it doesn't make a lot of sense for the Judge to take the bench right away.
I'm scheduled for Court in the morning and I'm suppose to be at work that day. How long is this all going to take?
Longer than you expect. There are times in your life where you feel like a number, and this is one of those times. You may be surprised to find that you and up to a hundred or more other people are scheduled for Court at the same time. If your notice says to be there on Tuesday at 9:00 am, so does everybody else's notice. So when is Court over? To borrow a line from Yogi Berra, "Court ain't over till its over." Someone will be first, someone will be last and there may be three, four or even five hours in between. You might want to tell the office/workplace you will need the day off.
(Note: if you like to wait in lines, Municipal Court is the place for you. There is the line where you check in, the line for the Prosecutor and the line to pay your fines. Sometimes you're in a line which is waiting to get in yet another line. Be prepared.)
Do I need to check in?
Many Courts have a check-in procedure which means that you have to find the window where the Court Clerk, or nowadays, Court Administrator's office is, and advise you have appeared. Sometimes the way this works is you reach the person at the window and they tell you that there really is no check in procedure, or that you will be checked-in inside the Courtroom. If that is the case, you should enter the Courtroom and find a seat and wait until your name is called. The reason for this check-in procedure is that, surprisingly, many people don't appear for Court. The Court wants to set aside the matters for people who have appeared and will deal with those who don't appear later.
What if I choose not to appear?
Not a good idea. If you are scheduled for Court and fail to appear or if the Court date on your ticket has passed without you contacting the Court Office, a warrant for your arrest can issue.
What happens when the Judge takes the Bench?
At some point the Judge finally emerges from some back room whereupon he will offer his Opening Remarks. You are asked to "rise" and it is announced that Court is in session. The Judge graciously allows you to sit back down and, in general, will advise you of the following:
"You have certain rights in Court, i.e. the right to be read the charges, the right to a trial, the right to an attorney, the right to a reasonable postponement, the right to remain silent. You have the right to call witnesses and to cross-examine the Prosecution's witnesses. The Prosecutor, as in any criminal proceeding, has to prove your guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." If you don't like the Court's finding or the penalty imposed, you have 20 days to appeal....
(An appeal, by the way, is not a do-over. The case isn't heard all over again in a higher Court. The hearing you have in Municipal Court is all you get and an appeal is a review of that Municipal Court proceeding.)
..All of the proceedings in Court are being taped for the purpose of appeals so there shouldn't be any talking."
(This no talking stuff doesn't sound like it should be a big deal but it is. Most Court's get very uppity about silence in the Courtroom. Cell phones are a particular "no-no" and should yours go off, you can get in more trouble than you would for the traffic charge you are facing. No kidding.)
The Judge will offer some further instructions but the above is pretty much the gist of it. These opening remarks are very important to take note of and they are made for the record in the event a defendant later claims he was never told about this right or that right.
What do I say when the Judge calls my name?
Somewhere during this process either the Court Administrator or the Judge may "call the list." This is where the list of names on the calendar is called, usually in alphabetical order, and you are asked to respond. This can be one of those nervous moments where you aren't sure what to say, some people even start blurting out their defense, but you should merely state something like "Not Guilty Your Honor. I'd like an opportunity to discuss my case with the Prosecutor." The Judge will be very impressed and then move on to the next name on the list. The fact is that you are not pleading guilty yet as you are still facing the charge as written. You will likely be pleading guilty later if and when the Prosecutor amends the charges to something else.
I don't want to plea bargain, I want to have a trial. It's the officer's word against mine. I'm sure when the Judge hears my side of the story he will understand and I'll win.
You are innocent until proven guilty, this is true. Still, it ordinarily doesn't take much of an effort for an experienced Prosecutor to make that leap from your innocence to your guilt. If you think that your subjective belief that you didn't do anything wrong is going to sway the Judge you are probably mistaken. Many people think that if the Judge simply "hears my story" he will toss out their case. The Judge, however, wasn't there at the scene to see that you did nothing wrong. He has to rely on the testimony that is presented to him. Most often in any traffic ticket trial there are two witnesses, the defendant and the officer. Certainly "beyond a reasonable doubt" sounds like a very lofty pursuit for a Prosecutor. You will wonder if it is only your word against the officer's, how are you going to be found guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt"? Why should the officer be believed and you be disbelieved? Couldn't the officer be mistaken? Doesn't the officer have some stake in the outcome of the case? What makes his testimony any more credible than yours?
These are all legitimate inquiries. Unfortunately, they won't usually carry the day. Practically speaking, if cases were dismissed in Municipal Court for these reasons, very few people would ever be convicted. Conceivably, in every case where it is the officer versus the defendant (which is nearly every case), the Court could say to itself, "Hmmm, maybe the police officer is lying or mistaken" and throw the ticket out. Ponder that notion for a minute. If that were true, nearly every single case could be dismissed on these grounds. Such a logical extreme could never be tolerated. Our system of justice, as it were, would be turned on its head. Instead, the Courts use reasoning that is probably correct 99% of the time. The officer has no axe to grind. He is trained and experienced and would have no compulsion to single out an innocent driver like you over the numerous guilty drivers out on the road he could have pulled over instead. He has nothing to gain by bringing the case against you. Conversely, you have everything to lose. You have no training, your speedometer hasn't been calibrated and any witness you might have brought is related to you or is your friend and would obviously be biased in your favor. This is the reasoning that results in a finding of guilt in the great majority of contested Municipal Court matters. No, its not a perfect system but, practically speaking, it is better than the alternative of permitting nearly everyone to beat their tickets for what are likely illegitimate grounds.
I want to plea guilty but I want to plea guilty with an explanation. There was a good reason I violated the statute. Does that make any difference?
Unless your "good reason" is a legal defense it won't affect the outcome. Feel free to plea guilty with an explanation but we're talking semantics. Guilty is guilty with or without your explanation. The judge may consider your explanation with respect to sentencing as a mitigating factor but he won't throw the ticket out if that is your expectation.
The officer misspelled my name and/or he got a number wrong on my license plate. Will the ticket be thrown out?
Doubtful. Short of failing to sign the ticket, there is virtually nothing the officer can do wrong on the ticket that will invalidate it. While this tactic seems to work in other States (notably New York), New Jersey does not get overly concerned that a number or letter is off on your summons. If there is enough on the summons to advise a reasonable person where and what they did wrong, that will usually be enough. The Court on its own motion or the Prosecutor may simply amend the ticket to reflect the correct spelling or number.
A friend of mine told me that if the officer doesn't show up in Court, the ticket dismissed. Is this correct?
Generally, no. This is another misconception because theoretically it should be true. In theory, if you appear and the Prosecution's witness (the officer) doesn't, there is no case to present and the case fails due to "Lack of Prosecution." The problem is that the Court will not generally go so far as to throw out a case if this happens just once. You can ask the Judge to dismiss the matter and then the Prosecutor, who is aligned with the officer, will stand and offer just about any excuse as to why the officer did not appear. He may not even offer an excuse but he will do handstands if necessary to get an adjournment to ensure that the officer's appearance the next time. In New Jersey, unlike some other jurisdictions, an officer can be reprimanded if his case is dismissed due to lack of prosecution so, as stated, the Prosecutor goes to great lengths not to let that happen. The Judge is also aware of the officer's predicament so he may also have this in the back of his head. It is possible that the case can be adjourned even more than once for these reasons and consequently, you are forced to return over and over. By the time the officer does show up, he may be less than thrilled to meet you nor be very accommodating. So, while in theory, the case can be dismissed due to Lack of Prosecution, it is a rarity.
I received a speeding ticket from a cop and while I may have been speeding, there is no way I was traveling as fast as he wrote me for. He was a real jerk and when I asked to look at his radar unit to see the reading, he wouldn't let me. Is this justice?
It may not be justice but it is a fact of life. The officer is not obligated to entertain your discussions or show you his radar reading. He doesn't have to prove to you that you were speeding, he has to prove it to the Court. And, unfortunately, while it would sure be nice, there is no requirement that the officer be pleasant while issuing you a ticket. Motorists who ask this questions are probably already behind the eight ball. It's a good idea, even if you have to bite your tongue, to be cordial to the officer. Even if he is confrontational, you should remain calm and polite. If you plan on contesting the ticket and saving points, the Prosecutor, who was not on the scene, may defer to the Officer's judgment. If you had some choice words for the officer or otherwise gave him a hard time, he will likely remember you and may not be as eager to help you as he otherwise might.
The officer who stopped me asked me if I knew why he was pulling me over. I didn't want to admit any wrongdoing but at the same time I wanted to be cooperative. What should I have said?
This is a tough call. If you answer "yes, because I was driving 99 miles a hour" then your admission could come back to haunt you at you in a trial. Alternatively, if you say "Gee I have no idea, do I have a brake light out?" you run the risk of sounding less than candid and ticking off the cop. If the officer is considering letting you go, as is his prerogative, he would likely prefer honesty on your part. The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Answer in terms of what you may have done. In that manner you are not committed. "I may have been speeding" is short, it offers candor and it doesn't outright prove your guilt. Apologizing is effectively an admission of guilt so that should be avoided. Instead, use an apologetic tone.
By the way, do not be embarrassed to hand the officer that FOP card you have or to advise that your Uncle John is the Chief of police in a neighboring town. The officer will not be able to rip up your tickets if you bring these items to his attention after they've been written.
The officer stopped me for speeding but he was either A) coming from the opposite direction; B) measuring my speed from behind a tree, building, billboard, or other structure; C) in front of me; D) pacing me; or E) otherwise unable to get a good read on my speed. Will this defense work?
A) no; B) no; C) no; D) no; and E) no. I know that sounds negative. If you don't have an attorney and often even if you do, these defenses rarely get anywhere. Police officers have been issuing speeding tickets for a long time, long before you and I ever received our drivers licenses. All of these defenses have been litigated over and over. Through the years of jurisprudence and case law these defenses have generally gotten no where and about the only defense to a speeding ticket that has a legitimate chances is if there is something clearly wrong with the officers radar unit or if he doesn't have the requisite training. Unless you know how to read calibration tests and have some wherewithal when it comes to tuning forks, you will likely be shot down in your tracks. Come to think of it, even with knowledge in these areas you are probably sunk. There has even been case law concluding that the officer's subjective opinion that a car was speeding can be enough to prove a defendant guilty of an offense. Without belaboring the point, the gimmicks you may have come across online or the claims made by friends that the Prosecutor won't be able to produce the proper "Discovery" (proofs) are 95% unfounded, at least as far as they would to apply to New Jersey.
I received a ticket for going 90+ mph in a 65 mph zone and the officer gave me an additional ticket for careless/reckless driving. I don't understand the need for the second ticket. The judge can't take my license just for speeding can he?
He can and he often will at these speeds. A Municipal Court Judge does have the authority to suspend your driving privileges for a speeding summons and many do when your speed is excessive. "Excessive" is in the eye of the beholder but 90 mph in a 65 zone is a red flag and 100 mph in a 65 is practically a done deal. Depending on the circumstances and depending on your driving history, a Judge may suspend your driving privileges for 30, 60 or sometimes even 90 days or more. This is often a real reality check for unsuspecting defendants, particularly the motorist who has a payable ticket of 90 mph in a 65 mph zone and pleads not guilty hoping to catch a break in Court. Conceivably the motorist could have paid their ticket but by going to Court they get to meet the Judge, who may be less than accommodating, and then they have their licenses suspended. By and large, tickets of 90+ are not payable and you have no choice but to appear. There may be little you can do to avoid license suspension because many Judges simply draw the line at 90 mph or 100 mph and they do not budge from this position. Often, speeding tickets going double the speed limit or more are also susceptible to license suspension. Thus, 50+ in a 25 mph zone could be a real problem. You really should have representation under all such circumstances because having an attorney may be the difference between saving or losing your license. Whatever you do, when you go before the Judge and he inevitably asks you why you were driving so fast, do not attempt to offer any justification. Claiming you were going downhill, or you were lost, or you were moving with the traffic will not be well received. Unless you were bleeding to death or in a similar predicament, the best response is to say that you have no good excuse and it was a foolish course of action on your part. It would also be a good idea to have signed up for a defensive driving course (offered by AAA) and have the confirmation of the upcoming course in your hand to show the Judge or Prosecutor. The Court loves when a defendant has taken steps, on his/her own volition, to address what the Court will conclude is a problem he/she has. It is somewhat analogous to the alcoholic defendant who, when they appear in Court, has begun taking AA courses to treat the underlying reason for the offense they are facing.
As for the extra ticket of careless driving (2 points) or reckless driving (5 points) these are often thrown in for good measure because, presumably, you were either careless or reckless when you drove at this excessive speed. Usually, a Prosecutor will be willing to dismiss this additional ticket. (Important: See the difference between Dismissing and Merging tickets later in this tutorial)
I'm charged with DWI, Driving While Suspended, Driving Without Insurance, Leaving the Scene of an Accident or Drug charges. What do I do?
Please, please, pretty please hire an attorney. This tutorial is not designed to address these very serious charges or other similar offenses beyond common NJ moving violations.
I've heard about a "zero-point" ticket that costs more money. How does that work?
New Jersey has a statute, namely Unsafe Operation, NJSA 39:4-97.2, which carries zero points. This statute was designed with plea bargaining in mind and has terrific catch-all language such that nearly any moving violation (other than DWI) can be amended to it by a willing Prosecutor. Until July of 2004, this was a wonderful way to resolve a moving violation in New Jersey. Short of an outright dismissal, it was as good as it gets. This is still largely true, but in July of 2004 the NJ legislature, looking for ways to raise revenue without raising taxes, noted that we attorneys were getting this result for our clients entirely too often. They concluded that if they could collect money every time this statute comes to pass in a Municipal Court, the State could really cash in and address its deficit. The result? A hefty $250.00 one time surcharge assessed by the Court. This charge is on top of your normal fines and costs. Whereas before July 2004 Unsafe Operation might cost a defendant $150.00 to $175.00, it now costs in the neighborhood of $400.00 for a first offense.
Given the sizeable fine amount, you might consider why you are in Court trying to get this result at all. As it happens, you are permitted two "Unsafe Operations", assuming it is offered, before a third one would result in four points. While its nickname is the "zero-point" summons, it isn't zero points on the third or more occasion. A caveat to this is if your third occasion is beyond five years from the second, in which case you are given a clean slate and you can once again obtain zero points.
There are different schools of thought respecting whether to attempt to retrieve Unsafe Operation and under what circumstances. There is general agreement among attorneys that a ticket of three or more points is worth the trip to Court for a reduction to zero points. Some attorneys, however, think that you should attempt to retrieve Unsafe Operation no matter how few points you are facing. The theory is that it is simply a bad idea to accumulate any points if you can avoid it. This writer's belief is that it is not worth attempting to retrieve an Unsafe Operation if you are facing a simple two point ticket, unless, of course, you are already in point trouble. The most common two point tickets are speeding 1-14 mph over the speed limit, careless driving and running a red light. While circumstances vary, $400.00 is a fair sum of money to pay and there may or may not be a comparative increase in your auto insurance costs if you are assessed the points. Many insurance companies will even forgive your first two point summons so there will be no adverse consequence. It is advisable to contact your insurance agent and inquire as to whether two points will affect your insurance costs. If you are a careful driver, haven't had a ticket in years and are now facing a two point ticket, it might make sense to simply pay the fine. If the two points bother you, you might consider taking a Defensive Driver course, offered by AAA and other agencies, where a successful completion of the Course can result in a two point reduction once submitted to DMV. The course is affordable, often less than $100.00. In effect, you have received the two point reduction that would have cost $400.00 in Court for significantly less. It could well happen that a year from now, or even six weeks from now, you could get a 4 point ticket that you would better served to go to Court and attempt to retrieve one of the two Unsafe Operations you have available.
For these reasons, I generally do not recommend going to Court and attempting to amend two point tickets to Unsafe Operation unless you already have point trouble. In the end, each person has to do their own cost/benefit analysis and consider the various factors and reach their own decision.
Are there other zero-point tickets other than Unsafe Operation so I don't have to pay $400.00 or more?
Yes there are, but the Prosecutor does not readily hand them out. Prior to 1999 and the advent of 39:4-97.2, Unsafe Operation, we attorneys would appear in Court and attempt to persuade the Prosecutor to amend moving violations to 39:4-67, Obstruction Traffic, or 39:4-56, Delaying Traffic. These statutes are still on the books. Since they are effectively not moving violations, no points are associated with them. Prior to 1999 an attorney and his client would stand before the Judge and enter a factual basis that really had no basis in fact. Even though he/she committed an entirely different offense (eg. speeding), the defendant claims that he either obstructed or delayed traffic. If you think about it, it is impossible to speed, blow a red light or improperly pass and thereby obstruct or delay traffic. With the introduction of Unsafe Operation, there was no longer the need to put this fiction before the Court. Defense attorneys rejoiced until July, 2004 when the State stuck their hands in the till, extracting $250.00 from every Unsafe Operation. Attempting now to revert back to Obstructing Traffic or Delaying Traffic is met with tremendous resistance due to the very realistic fact that you neither obstructed traffic or delayed traffic and, moreover, Unsafe Operation better addresses your bad driving. Meanwhile, Municipal Court Judges have received directives from higher up not to accept pleas without proper factual bases and such attempts will rarely pass their judicial scrutiny. So, only in rare instances will you be able to get zero points which isn't Unsafe Operation, and hardly ever if you don't have an attorney.
When do I speak to the Prosecutor?
Depending on the Court, one of two ways. The first might be prior to the Judge taking the bench. The other would be after the Judge's opening remarks. In half of the Courts the Prosecutor will be sitting at his desk up close to the Judge's bench and he or she will entertain conferences with defendants. You should take this opportunity if it is available. In the other half of the Courts the Prosecutor has his own office in a nearby or adjoining room. You will find that there may be a line at his office that you should get in ASAP. Check the Court Room first and if he's not there, look for his office.
I can't wait to tell the Prosecutor what happened. Once he hears what I have to tell him, he'll certainly want to dismiss the case.
You might think that once you reach the Prosecutor this is your opportunity to tell your entire sad tale. Certainly, the Prosecutor, if he is going to understand who you are and get to know you and find out how you ended up in front of him, he will want to know your whole life story. He will want to know all the details as to how you got your ticket, where you were coming from, where you were going and how you were pulled over for really no good reason. This may come as a big surprise but, in general, the Prosecutor does not want to hear your version of the facts nor does he care about your life story. He doesn't have the time to engage you, and the facts of your case that he cares about are right there on your tickets. Being a Prosecutor, he assumes that you are guilty of the offense as charged. He is not interested in hearing what he will inevitably conclude are your bad defenses. He does not want to hear how you had to speed in order to get to work on time or that you had to speed in order to pass a slow moving vehicle or that you had to speed in order to get to a rest stop. He does not want to hear that you were "going with the flow of traffic" and /or it was impossible for the officer to have singled you out. He does not want to hear that your radar detector didn't go off or that the officer was rude to you. He will be unmoved by your argument that there was "no way" your four cylinder car could have reached the speed that the officer claimed. He doesn't care if it was a speed-trap or that you were going downhill. He doesn't want to see the schematics you've drawn of the scene or the pictures you have taken of the traffic light depicting that it was green at the time you passed through. If it appears that he is showing the slightest bit of interest in your claims he is merely being polite.
Why doesn't the Prosecutor want to hear any of this? The reason is that he has likely been at this job for a long time, has heard it all before and knows that your defense is probably not a defense. The fact that you were traveling along with the traffic is not a legal defense to speeding. The fact that your photograph depicts a green light doesn't prove that it was green when you went through it. It is not a defense that you drove on the shoulder in order to make your eventual turn. Believe it or not, you're not the first person who has approached the Prosecutor with the claim that you had a sick child in the back of your car who was about to throw up. There is really nothing you can offer the Prosecutor that he hasn't heard dozens, if not hundreds of times previously. There will usually be nothing novel about an unrepresented defendant's so-called "defense." Having gone down this road too often, the Prosecutor has concluded that if he listens to you explain your life away, it does nothing to expedite the proceedings, which is his main objective.
Okay, if the Prosecutor won't want to listen to me, what is my approach?
In general, Prosecutors have a rule of thumb when it comes to point reductions for unrepresented defendants. If you are charged with a 5 point ticket, you will likely be offered 4 points, if you are charged with a 4 point ticket, you will be offered 2 points and if you are charged with a 2 point ticket you will be offered zero points and the hefty fines. Prosecutors may deviate from this general rule and you can benefit as a result.
How do you persuade him to do it? Your rule of thumb: be brief, be direct and be humble. Be pleasant and do not be confrontational. What the Prosecutor wants to hear from you is simple: how is your driving record and were you cooperative with the officer. Those are the two big concerns of any Prosecutor. As stated, he has assumed you're guilty so now his concern, if he is going to help you, are these mitigating factors. If you were, in fact, disruptive or rude to the officer, you could be done for, assuming the Prosecutor defers to the officer. It is at this point where you say how foolish you were. Acknowledge that the officer was correct to stop you, you were having a really bad day and if need be, you would like to apologize to the officer. Hopefully, you did not give the officer a hard time and don't have to stoop to this. It can be a bitter pill to swallow.
As for your driving record, if it is good then point that out immediately. A prosecutor can justify to the Court or the officer offering someone with a good driving record a good plea agreement. Don't say its good if it isn't because it is altogether possible that the Prosecutor has your driving history in his hand. While you maybe have gotten nowhere trying to obtain your driving history from DMV, your abstract is easily attainable in the Court and can be retrieved if necessary.
If your records isn't so good and you have point issues, you may have to come at the Prosecutor from another angle. If he doesn't bring it up, don't bring it to his attention. If it surfaces, here you might point out the obvious fact that you really can't afford to get more points on your license. (After all, a person in point trouble could use the help more than someone with a good driving record). Perhaps, previously you had gotten tickets and simply paid them because you were guilty. You didn't see the point in bothering the Court and fighting them (though you likely see the point now). Perhaps you had a bad streak and you've been doing a whole lot better lately. You have to work with what you got.
Another factor the Prosecutor considers is the egregiousness of your offense. The more egregious, the less willing he will be to help you. Egregiousness, like everything, is relative. Were you one of those obnoxious drivers driving on the shoulder to avoid traffic? Were you going 90+ mph and weaving in and out of cars? Or were you committing an offense that everyone does, a rolling stop through a stop sign or caught between the yellow and the red light? The latter scenarios are clearly less egregious than the former and will be greeted with a more receptive Prosecutor. In all likelihood, the Prosecutor can relate. He may even have driven in the same manner on his way to Court!
Notwithstanding the above, it is altogether possible that you can say and do all the right things and still not get the best outcome. Each Prosecutor and each Court have its own personality. The Prosecutor might not give you the time of day or the Judge might not permit certain plea agreements or the officer may be less than cooperative. There are too many variables to guarantee any absolute result.
Why would the Prosecutor be willing to downgrade my charge if he could easily convict me?
Consider the following. The fact is that there are scores of matters before the Court during your session. The Prosecutor, if he wanted, could prosecute every defendant in the Courtroom and he could likely convict 95% of those he tries. The defendant, particularly the unrepresented defendant, is at a significant disadvantage. Clearly though, if the Prosecutor were to prosecute the entire Courtroom, the Court session would go on for hours on end. No one wants this to happen. The Prosecutor, the Judge, the Court Staff all want to get home eventually, just like everyone else. Moreover, most Prosecutors are not terrible guys and they recognize that defendants in a Municipal Court, by in large, are not criminals. They were unlucky enough to have been pulled over and issued a summons or two and they have appeared in Court to do some damage control. They are hopeful that there can be a reduction in the number of points they are facing and thereby minimize the consequences they may face from DMV and their insurance company.
While the Judge may tell you in his opening remarks that the Court does not hand out points, which it doesn't (DMV does), he and the Prosecutor and everyone else knows that points are really the name of the game. There is of course the occasional defendant who insists he did nothing wrong and when push comes to shove the Prosecutor will give him a trial. But, given the time constraints, the calendar load and the recognition that you aren't a criminal, the Prosecutor is often willing to make a plea agreement with a defendant to save everyone the aggravation.
What if I have more than one moving violation? What do I say to the Prosecutor then?
Sometimes you have the misfortune of having two or more movable violations with points coming at you in large quantities. In these cases it is advisable to get what could be called a "package deal" where you can perhaps plea to one of the tickets and dismiss the other ticket or tickets. You can even ask for the remaining ticket's points to be reduced. As an example, a four-point speeding ticket could be reduced to two points and the other two-point Careless Driving ticket could be dismissed. Rest assured you will likely not convince a Prosecutor to go from 7 points to zero or from 9 to 2 but there are some palatable combinations that can work. Some consolation in this situation, if there is any, is that there are fewer fines to pay since a ticket or tickets are being dismissed. If you are facing a two point ticket and a four point ticket, the Prosecutor may suggest you plead to the four point ticket and he'll dismiss the 2 pointer. Test the water and ask if you can plea to the 2 point ticket and dismiss the 4 pointer. Use the same strategy if you are facing two tickets with higher point quantities. For those of you facing three or more moving violations, not good, you really should have hired an attorney.
NOTE: This may be a good time to discuss the issue of "merger." Until fairly recently, merging one ticket into another was the practical equivalent of dismissing the merged ticket. Not so anymore. This is a murky issue which came to light with respect to how court personnel were entering disposed tickets into the Automated Traffic System (ATS). Presently, if one ticket is merged into another, say for instance a careless driving ticket is merged into a speeding ticket, you don't pay fines for the merged ticket but you may still get the DMV points. This can be a very sticky situation. A Prosecutor may say "Okay, we'll merge the other tickets into your reckless driving ticket" and you feel great that all these other tickets went away. Then months later you receive a surcharge notification from DMV saying you've been assessed all the points for the merged summonses. So when dealing with the Prosecutor, you don't want your associated tickets "merged", you want them dismissed.
What about these other tickets I received for no seatbelt or not having a document in my possession? What do I do about them?
While these tickets, such as 39:3-29, not having a certain document in your possession, or 39:3-76.2, seatbelt tickets, seem as though the officer was rubbing salt in your wounds, such tickets can often be used as leverage. There is no point consequence to nonmoving violations in New Jersey so a combination of pleas where you plea to such tickets in exchange for a greater reduction in points is altogether realistic. The Prosecutor may offer to dismiss the 39:3-29 or the seatbelt ticket but you can suggest that you would be willing to pay it in exchange for a greater reduction in points. If the Prosecutor doesn't bite, make sure you ask him to dismiss such summonses as they translate into money out of your pocket for no real good reason.
I've worked out my deal with the Prosecutor, what's next?
Thanks to your brief, direct and humble approach, you've worked out an agreement with the Prosecutor. Find a seat in the Courtroom close to the front or near the aisle and wait for your name to be called to appear before the Judge. At this point it is fairly random when you will be called and whether your name begins with A or Z is of no consequence. When you hear your name called, approach either the defense table (that's the second table up front where the Prosecutor is not sitting) or the microphone that may be in the middle between the Prosecution and Defense tables. The Judge will look at you and say something very judicious such as "Are you so-and-so (insert your name)?" Either he or the Prosecutor will then go over the plea agreement you have reached.
Most Judges will then go into a brief colloquy with you. He may ask if you entered this plea bargain voluntarily. Did anyone force you to enter this plea arrangement. Are you aware that by entering a guilty plea you are giving up your right to trial and your right to cross-examine the State's witnesses? Knowing that are you still willing to plea guilty? Next is the "kicker." The Judge will ask if you are acknowledging that on such-and-such date in the town of such-and-such you drove in the manner to which you are pleading guilty. This can make some people feel a little uneasy. You are being asked to admit you did something wrong and maybe you aren't so convinced. Nonetheless, you're faced with this yes or no question. For the Court to accept your plea it has to hear from your lips an admission of wrongdoing. It is called "entering a factual basis." If you say either "No" or "No, but I figure I better say I'm guilty to get the benefit of a plea bargain" or anything that sounds remotely like you're not sure you want to go through with this, the Judge slams on the brakes and says, "Oh well, I guess we're going to have a trial, sit back down." If you didn't do anything wrong and want to have a trial, by all means, say "No", or alternatively, don't bother discussing your matter with the Prosecutor in the first place. However, if you want to get out of Court and to the payment window in the next three minutes you will acknowledge that "yes" you made an error in driving. Once said, it is smooth sailing and the Judge assesses fines and costs and sends you on your way. Note: Some Judges surprisingly skip the whole "factual basis" exercise and save you any trepidation.
I'm done. Do I have to pay my fine now? What if I didn't bring any money?
Go to the window where you first checked in many hours earlier and provide your name so you can make payment. Whatever you do, do not go to Court without any funds. The Court expects, and the Judge may address it in his opening remarks, that you have come with money in your pockets prepared to pay the fines. Most Courts do not want to become your creditor. The Courts have drawers full of time payment arrangements and they don't want to add you to the list. If funds are an issue, bring at least $100.00 with you for payment as a good faith effort and explain that you are simply unable to make the payment at this time. Very few Courts will let you leave without paying anything. Once again, being humble is a good idea. The Court does not have to accept a time payment arrangement, they do it entirely as an accommodation and they can even put you in jail, should they choose, if you can't make full payment. You might have to break out that cell phone you turned off earlier to call a friend or spouse for funds. If you can, offer to pay the balance of what you owe quickly. Extending payments too far is not met with receptiveness. As far as payment goes, all Courts accept cash or checks and about half will accept credit cards. Lastly, if you enter a payment arrangement, make sure you pay the Court as agreed and if you can't, call them and advise as such. They will hopefully extend you additional time. If you ignore your obligation, the Court can and will issue a warrant for your arrest and/or suspend your driving privileges.
Are there some Courts that are harder to deal with than others? Does it make a difference from county to county?
Yes. While most Municipal Courts function very similarly, there are Courts/Prosecutors/Judges that are simply less amenable to plea bargaining than others. Just like every person has a different personality, so too does each Court. It would be an exhaustive exercise to rank or critique each individual Court and even if attempted, Judges and Prosecutors can come and go which would change the landscape altogether. I will say, however, that I have appeared in Municipal Courts in every County of New Jersey and for whatever reason, the northwest part of the State (Warren County) can be very unforgiving. Maybe it's the colder weather?
I really didn't commit an offense. Do I have to enter a plea agreement?
No. If you didn't commit any offense you obviously have the option to go to trial. The Prosecutor will have to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It is possible, though not guaranteed, that justice will prevail. Given the layperson's unfamiliarity with the law, it is advisable to retain an attorney if you desire to take your matter to trial.
Would having an attorney have moved the process any faster?
Yes! Court Rules require, and the Judge will tell you during his opening remarks, that matters with attorneys take precedence over matters without attorneys. If there weren't enough reasons not to like attorneys this is yet another that can be added to the list. The lawyers get to cut in front of you to speak to the Prosecutor and after that, the Judge moves the lawyers' cases post haste. Ever since preschool you've been told that its wrong to cut in line, but an attorney in Municipal Court is allowed to do it, does it quite brazenly, and astonishingly, you are told that those are in fact the rules! If you are one of those people who end up waiting 4 or 5 hours for your case to be heard you will wonder why you didn't hire an attorney who got in and out of Court in an hour. These Court rules exist to accommodate the fact that lawyers have to often be in more than one Court at a time. The rules seem to give little weight to the fact that the unrepresented defendant has places he or she might like to be as well. Where you have to be is apparently not as important as where I have to be. Sorry, those are the rules.
Why else hire an Attorney?
Since this tutorial tells you everything you need to know about Municipal Court (that's sarcasm) you may wonder why would you need an attorney. An attorney is schooled, trained and experienced. He is familiar with the rules of evidence, knows what defenses do and don't work and often has familiarity with the players involved in your Municipal Court hearing. You yourself represent very little opposition to an experienced Prosecutor. If you don't like the deal he proposes or if he doesn't propose a deal you have little leverage or ability to counter this fact. Conversely, an attorney represents a genuine obstacle. He can make appropriate motions and knows the appropriate means, if any, to combat the proofs presented. Even if you defense might not succeed, the threat of a defense will often cause a Prosecutor to offer a better plea bargain. It is simply a matter of fact that a represented defendant will generally receive a better plea offer than the unrepresented one.
Beyond the above, an attorney provides a certain comfort level you otherwise don't have. He knows where to go, who to speak to, where to sit, where to stand, what to say and, as indicated earlier, he gets preference over the other matters without attorneys.
Hopefully you will find the above useful. Again, I do not recommend going to Court alone. If you have a NJ Speeding Ticket or other New Jersey Traffic Ticket please visit our website http://www.njpleabargain.com. We will be happy to offer any assistance we can.
DISCLAIMER: THIS TUTORIAL IS NOT INTENDED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR AN IN-DEPTH CONSULTATION WITH AN ATTORNEY. IT DOES NOT PROVIDE CASE LAW OR EXPLAIN RULES OF EVIDENCE OR OTHERWISE PREPARE A DEFENDANT FOR TRIAL. THESE MATERIALS ARE DESIGNED TO ASSIST A DEFENDANT IN UNDERSTANDING THE NEW JERSEY MUNICIPAL COURT PROCESS AND TO PROVIDE PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS RESPECTING COURT APPEARANCE AND PLEA NEGOTIATION, NOTHING MORE. THERE IS NO GUARANTEE, WRITTEN OR IMPLIED THAT BY FOLLOWING THESE GUIDELINES YOU WILL ACHIEVE YOUR DESIRED RESULT. THE TUTORIAL ADDRESSES TYPICAL NEW JERSEY MOVING VIOLATIONS CARRYING NJ DMV POINTS AND IS NOT DESIGNED TO ADDRESS MORE SERIOUS DRIVING OFFENSES SUCH AS DWI, DRIVING WHILE SUSPENDED, LEAVING THE SCENE OF AN ACCIDENT OR DRUG OFFENSES. THESE AND OTHER SUCH OFFENSES MAY HAVE MORE SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES AND SHOULD BE DISCUSSED IN FULL WITH AN ATTORNEY.
About the author: Submit Your NJ Speeding or other New Jersey Traffic ticket to http://www.njpleabargain.com for a free review.
Powered by CommonSense CMS script - http://www.sensesites.com/