How do New Jersey Municipal Courts work?

What do we need to know should we ever have to appear for a DWI?

Published in Asbury Park Press – 2010

By Peter H. Lederman, Esq.

There are approximately 84 Municipal Courts in Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Over the last year, they have resolved approximately 520,205 cases of which approximately 417,667 were motor vehicle complaints. Other cases range from Domestic Violence, zoning and code violations to dog ordinance, simple assault and theft violations. Most of us have been in Municipal Courts at one time or the other. As my practice is limited to DWI defense, I find myself there almost everyday. Over my career though, I have been involved in both defending and prosecuting Defendants for these different offenses. Here are some things I have learned over the years which might be interesting and helpful. Firstly, Municipal Courts in their present form have been around since the last revision of our Constitution in 1947. They embody both the advantages and disadvantages of Ahome rule@ of which were are so fond. On the plus side, they are for the most part smaller courts which are close to the community. This is in contrast with larger, more impersonal courts on the State level.

At the same time, having a Court in each of the 520 or so towns in New Jersey, each with their own Judges, Prosecutors, Public Defenders and Court Administrators, may not make sense at a time when government is expected to provide services more efficiently. That story, though is for another day. How do Municipal Courts work then and what do we need to know should we ever have to appear? Most cases start with what is commonly referred to as a Aticket.@ If an Officer stops a car and wants to charge the driver with a motor vehicle violation, they would write the ticket and give it to the driver.

The Aticket@ is technically a Summons and Complaint. The ASummons@ part requires or summonses the Defendant to appear in Court to respond to the charge made by the Officer. It also requires that the Defendant appear in the Municipal Court on a certain day and time to answer the Officer’s Complaint. Some complaints can be answered by mail or with the payment of a fine set for the particular offense. Many of these fines can be paid on the internet Other offenses require the presence of the Defendant in Court on the date and time set.

I tell my clients that the Summons is like an invitation to appear in Court. If the Defendant fails to appear however, the Judge can order that a Bench Warrant be issued. This will direct a police officer to arrest the Defendant and require the Defendant to post bail in an amount set by the Judge before released from jail. If the Defendant fails to appear after bail has been posted, the bail will be forfeited and another Bench Warrant will be issued. This time, the Defendant may be kept in jail until the case is heard. Driving privileges will also be suspended upon a failure to appear. Even worse, you will be Agetting off on the wrong foot@ with the Judge before the case begins. Obviously you will want every opportunity to make a good impression upon the Court, when it comes time to decide your case.

In the AComplaint@ part of the ticket, the officer claims that the Defendant has violated the law. The police officer however, is part of the Executive Branch of government, which is separate from the Court. The Court, as part of the Judicial Branch, is independent of the police and must find a defendant guilty only after it is convinced from the testimony of the officer (and any other witnesses), along with other evidence, that the Defendant is guilty as charged by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Of course, the Defendant has the right to testify, tell their side of the story and offer any other proofs they have. Furthermore, the Defendant has the right to be represented by an attorney, to cross examine witnesses, remain silent if they chose and most important, to be found guilty, only after being proven guilty by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The Defendant also has a right to appeal, should they disagree with the Court’s decision.

Of course, a Defendant can enter a plea of guilt and avoid the need for trial. This often happens when the Prosecutor agrees to reduce the charge and penalties as part of a plea bargain. Plea bargains often take into consideration the ultimate result as it relates to fines, points, suspension of driving privileges and jail. Some offenses however, cannot be plea bargained, such as DWI, drug possession and certain underage operation offenses.

It’s often necessary to have effective legal representation in Municipal Court. Certainly, serious offenses such as Driving While Intoxicated require the highest level of legal skill, considering the harsh consequences which follow. Keep in mind that most DWI penalties require mandatory minimum suspensions, fines and even jail. These penalties increase substantially for subsequent offenses. It’s best then, to obtain the best representation available in these case.

It’s impossible to touch on everything of importance that occurs in these Courts. If you have a problem, you should consult with an attorney who has experience and skill in this area. Let me highlight though a few things to keep in mind.

We probably have so many DWI’s in New jersey because alcohol is so available and inexpensive and socially acceptable. With little public transportation, most everyone will use cars for transportation. Alcohol though is, simply put, a dangerous drug. I tell my clients that you must always Ado your thinking before you do your drinking@, know your limits and apply these limits strictly, if you are going to drive.

It’s also important to remember, that a stop sign requires a complete stop, that turning and lane changes require a turn signal and that a car must be operated within the lanes of traffic. We must always be smart when we drive and not engage in activities that would distract us. If you are going to program a GPS system, make sure you do it when the car is not being operated. As for cell phones, you just cannot drive and hold a cell phone at the same time. Just forget trying to text and drive at the same time. Remember, that you have to be smart to avoid not only tickets but serious injury and property damage.

Posted in Articles, FAQ and tagged , .