What are your options if you get a traffic ticket (moving violation) in New Jersey?
A caveat in this post is that each courthouse operates separately and differently. Each traffic ticket comes with its own set of circumstances (previous violations, the specific violation, etc.). This is not legal advice, and you should not rely on it or expect that your experience will be the same. A lawyer can advise you of your rights and the best way to handle your situation.
When you get a ticket, you have two options:
–Pay the ticket. By doing so, you are pleading guilty to the charge, but you avoid a court appearance. You may get points on your license, which can result in a “chargeable event” by your insurance company. Your insurance rates might go up. State Farm, for example, will increase your insurance rates if you have 3 points on your driving record. You also have to pay your driving ticket within a specified time, like within 7 days.
–Go to court. You may need to call the court to tell them you are pleading not guilty (even if you are guilty), and they’ll give you a court date. Details below.
Soon after you get a ticket, you’ll start getting letters from local lawyers who offer you a free consultation or phone call to discuss your case. Your call if you want a lawyer. If it’s a first-time violation, the information below will likely get you through the situation, but a free phone call is always good!
WHEN YOU GO TO COURT
You’re likely going to have a long wait, like three hours. Get there early and wait, or get there later and wait. Bring something to read. You’ll check in at the window and will be told to wait in the court room. If you want to plea bargain your case, ask when you check in to speak with the prosecutor. They’ll put your name on a list, and you’ll be called in the order you arrive, which could happen while court is in session (don’t worry, your name won’t be called to see the judge until after you’ve seen the prosecutor).
If you have a lawyer there with you, you might get to go first, so the lawyer can leave. If you’re not meeting with the prosecutor, the judge will call you up and repeat the charges to you. This is the arraignment (first appearance), not the trial. The judge will ask if you plead guilty or not guilty, and may explain the repercussions of each (especially if you plead guilty and there are severe consequences). If you plead not guilty, you’ll get a trial date and the judge will ask if you are going to be represented by counsel. If you say you are not going to have a lawyer, you still have seven days to change your mind and have a lawyer send a letter to the court announcing representation.
MEETING WITH THE PROSECUTOR
The prosecutor, who is not in the courtroom, might be able to cut you a deal. That means downgrading the charge (changing a speeding ticket from 90 mph in a 55 zone, to 69 mph in a 55 zone, for example), which may result in fewer to no points. It also may result in a surcharge. That will be explained later. If you have a good driving record, the prosecutor might even offer to lower the charge without you requesting it, though you need to be on the list to speak with the prosecutor. Once you work out your deal with the prosecutor, you’ll go back to the court room and wait to be called. The prosecutor will still be meeting with others, but the baliff will transport your papers to the judge. When the judge calls your name, he/she will repeat the deal back to you, and you will need to agree to what happened with the prosecutor, agree to the surcharge, agree that you weren’t coerced, agree to waive your right to trial, etc. You then go pay your fees.
You can plea down your points two times in five years.
If you go to trial to fight the charge, the police officer will be present. If the police officer doesn’t show, don’t think you’ll get off like in some states. No, they’ll reschedule and you’ll have to come back again. The police officer I spoke with said cops love going to traffic court because they get overtime. He said they don’t care if you win or lose, but this cop also said he’s never lost a traffic ticket in court.
WHAT IF YOU CAN’T PAY
If you can’t afford the fees/penalties assessed, you can request to pay it off over time. The judge will agree to a start date and monthly schedule for payment. If you don’t pay on time or the right amount, you’ll get a bench warrant. If you don’t strike a deal with the prosecutor, and you plead not guilty and request a trial, you can get a public defender if you qualify. You’ll have to fill out paperwork to qualify and the judge will decide. You may still have to pay a fee for the public defender (like $50-200).
If you avoid court and plead guilty by sending in the ticket and your check, you may pay $85 or so for the ticket. That’s all you pay the court.
By going to court, you may have to pay a fee, like $34, just for the privilege of sitting in hard wooden seats for hours hoping to decrease your ticket. If you plea down your ticket, you may end up with a more expensive ticket (like $150 instead of $85), and a penalty, like $250. So that $85 ticket now costs $433. But there are no points.
This high fee may well make you feel like New Jersey just took advantage of you. And they did. The thought is that this money could go to your insurance company, or it could go to the local township. The bonus for you is that you get no points which is better for your driving record (and future insurance costs), but it comes at a very high financial fee to you. You’re going to pay either way. This way you get no points.
Bring your checkbook. Many courts do not accept credit or debit cards at the window. You may be able to pay with a credit card by calling their payment number, but there will be an additional fee for that.
You can find a schedule for some of the common points assigned for traffic violations on the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission website. Points are a permanent part of your driving record, however they don’t all count after a certain point. According to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, if you are suspension and violation-free for one year, three points are deducted (you can’t go negative).
That may not make a difference to your insurance company, however. The points that do count on your driving record could result in an increased insurance charge for three years. According to a police office I spoke with, the points that no longer “count” on your record (but are still part of the system) can still make a difference if to an insurance company, putting you in a different rating group for risk.
The points can also make a difference if you get pulled over again for another traffic violation. The police officer who pulls you over looks up your driving record, while looking up your license plate and registration information. The police officer told me that if you have no points on your record, you have a better chance of avoiding getting a traffic ticket when pulled over. If you have points, they’re more likely to give you a ticket.
You can go to traffic school in New Jersey and the DMV will erase two points on your record. Some you can do online, and some cost as little as $27.
If you do not pay your parking tickets, you can get your license suspended, though you don’t get points for parking tickets. License suspension gets very expensive very quickly. Read this story I wrote on another blog about an experience driving with a suspended license in New Jersey (fortunately it’s not my experience). If you’re ticketed with driving with a suspended license more than once, you’re at risk of jail time and the fees go up exponentially. Look at Juicy Joe Guidice, jailed for 10 days for driving with a suspended license.
Don’t get a ticket.