MUNICIPAL COURTS: It’s More Than Just a Speeding Ticket
For most people exposure to New Jersey’s municipal courts is the first, and sometimes the only, experience with our legal system. Your understanding and navigation of the process is crtical to how you will view your experience there.
Some states have the misdemanor (less serious) and felony (more serious) system to define criminal offenses. New Jersey uses different terms with similar meanings: non-indictable and indictable. If the offense is of the latter (indictable) your matter is handled at the Superior Court level. Future blogs will talk about these alleged offenses. Non-indictable matters are handled at the Municipal Court level. Think of these courts as your “town courts” or “local courts”.
Municipal Courts in New Jersey are empowered to handle all types of alleged offenses. Some are criminal or quasi-criminal: domestic violence, disorderly person assault cases, drug offenses and driving while intoxicated. Others are not criminal: speeding, careless or reckless driving, violations of licensing, registration or insurance laws and other motor vehicle moving violations.
There is a tendency to believe that these matters in the municipal courts can be handled without a lawyer in order to save legal fees. From the outset let me tell you that this is a big MISTAKE. The legal fees that you certainly will save will be spent, in other ways, as you mishandle your case. Let me tell you some of the little known truths about municipal courts:
1) Those with attorneys are usually treated better than those without because attorneys serve as “buffers” between you and the prosecutor and the police.
2) Attorneys can say things to the prosecutor and police in a way that you cannot because you are the accused and shouldn’t be saying anything at all.
3) Attorneys can advance real legal arguments to the prosecutor as oppossed to those who “just wanna break”.
4) Prosecutors and police “lick their chops” when someone tries to handle their own case. The same is not true when someone is represented by a lawyer.
5) You are entitled to speak with the prosecutor and sometimes the police, but they don’t have to offer you a deal or if they do, it may not be as good as the guy before you who had a lawyer.
6) There is a lot of money at stake that has nothing to do with legal fees. For example, local town courts generate a great deal of revenue from the tickets and summonses that their police write. These result in fines and court costs paid…every single day. Insurance companies assess “surcharges” on top of your insurance premiums every time you plead guilty or are found guilty in municipal court. The state DMV also assesses surcharges based upon certain results in municipal court.
7) Lousy things happen to good people everyday in municipal court. Those that don’t know or understand the process sometimes have their licenses suspended, go to jail for a short period of time, are unable to apply for a gun permit, are temporarily not permitted to live at home with their spouse, can’t make bail or have a criminal conviction that follows them forever. These are terrible things that will impact your life. They may not have to happen if you have a lawyer.
8) With very few exceptions every charge in municipal court can be downgraded, negotiated, amended, merged or dismissed in a way that lessens the impact to the client. Think you know how to do it? Good luck to you. If you want to save money, time, aggravation and adverse impact to your life…consult an attorney.
9) A couple of “do’s & don’ts” that really will help you in municipal court:
a) always be nice to the cops. It costs you nothing and really will go a long way in court when it counts.
b) always have your license, registration and insurance ready when you are pulled over.
c) don’t argue, challange or demand proof at the scene. Let your lawyer do that in court.
d) don’t make gratutious statements. Only answer what is asked.
e) if you are suspected of driving while intoxicated DO NOT admit to drinking alcohol and DO NOT refuse the breathalyzer test. An admission of consumption is NEVER helpful and refusing to take the breathalyzer test is NEVER helpful. A good lawyer can do more with a bad reading tha no reading at all.
10) Consult a lawyer who knows the municipal court system in New Jersey. Going with your father’s corporate lawyer who never gets out of his midtown Manhattan office is not the answer. Feel comfortable with the attorney you choose and make sure they are experienced enough for your needs.
Remember…its more than just a speeding ticket!