NEW JERSEY MUNICIPAL COURT SURVIVAL GUIDE
TOP TEN TIPS ON APPEARING IN NEW JERSEY MUNICIPAL COURT
CARRY YOURSELF AS YOU WOULD WHEN YOU ATTEND YOUR CHURCH (OR RELIGIOUS INSTITUTION). conduct YOURself during your COURT APPEARANCE IN A NEW JERSEY MUNICIPAL COURT AS YOU WOULD conduct yourself during YOUR attendance at a SUNDAY MORNING MASS. plan in advance and think of ALL OF THE THINGS THAT YOU WOULD TAKE INTO CONSIDERATION WHEN ATTENDING church, I.E., PARKING, PROPER ATTIRE, PUNCTUALITY, SEATING, and most importantly PATIENCE.
Patience is an absolute necessity to have during your trip to any municipal court in new jersey. your visit could take anywhere from an hour to four hours (ESPECIALLY when court is crowded) and mentally preparing for a long morning will reduce your stress levels. You should expect medium to long lines starting at the security line. Then you will have to wait in line to speak with the prosecutor. Next, you will have to wait for the judge to call your case. lastly, you will have to wait at the ticket window to pay your fines.
You will be expected to demonstrate PROPER CONDUCT at all times. This means NO TALKING or texting (ESPECIALLY WHEN COURT IS IN SESSION). Make certain to be courteous and always DEMONSTRATe RESPECT FOR ALL COURT EMPLOYEES. Court employees are some of the hardest working employees in the New Jersey Municipal court system and should never be mistreated. in my experience, they are always doing their absolute best to help everyone.
I cannot emphasize how important it is to be PREPARED WITH ALL OF YOUR PAPERWORK. Being prepared with your documents will speed up the process. Your paperwork contains your ticket or complaint number and providing this to the court clerk simplifies everyone's life. ONCE YOU PASS SECURITY, MAKE CERTAIN TO TURN OFF YOUR CELL AND CHECK IN WITH THE APPROPRIATE CLERK. If you are not represented by counsel, kindly inquire as to where you should go to check in. with the exception of counsel cases, all matters are taken in the order in which the person arrives.
IF ENGLISH IS NOT YOUR FIRST LANGUAGE, YOU MAY NOT FEEL THAT YOU MAY FEEL THAT YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO PRESENT YOUR SIDE OF THE CASE CLEARLY. IF THIS IS THE CASE, TRY TO TAKE AN INTERPRETER OF YOUR LANGUAGE WITH YOU, OR, IF YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE IS SPANISH, THE COURT WILL PROBABLY HAVE AN INTERPRETER AVAILABLE. MOST NEW JERSEY MUNICIPAL COURTS ALSO HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY TO CALL A SERVICE ON SPEAKER PHONE, DURING OPEN COURT, AND REQUEST AN INTERPRETER FOR EVERY LANGUAGE. I WITNESSED A DEFENDANT PLACE HIS GUILTY PLEA ON THE RECORD IN SLOVAKIAN. IT WILL TAKE EXTRA TIME, BUT EVERYONE IS ACCOMMODATED.
REMEMBER TIP NUMBER ONE ABOVE (BE PATIENT).
On your first appearance, you will have an opportunity to speak with the Municipal Prosecutor. Be extremely patient and respectful. Municipal prosecutors deal with hundreds of people a week and these professionals greatly appreciate courteous defendants. If you are appearing for a minor traffic offense, you may obtain a satisfactory result on your own and thus, save money by avoiding the need to hire an attorney.
Please remember that each Municipal Court in New Jersey is filled with microphones. These microphones are state-of-the-art microphones and they are super sensitive. They will record absolutely everything that is said in the court room. You do not have an expectation of privacy in court and if you whisper an incriminating fact about your case to the person sitting beside you, it may be recorded and used against you. For more on how self-incrimination works, read this.
Every court follows an order in hearing each case (with slight variations). attorney cases go first. This means that if a defendant has retained counsel, even if the defendant and his attorney arrive after you, their case is heard first. This rule is outlined in the New Jersey Court Rules for Municipal Court. The underlying reason for this is that attorneys appear in different courts throughout the day and if they had to wait until the very end of each court session to have their matter heard, then the courts would be back-logged for years.
Next, the court (judge) hears all guilty pleas, dismissals and adjournments (case gets carried to another date).
Towards the end of each court session, the judge hears all parking ticket cases. If you are disputing a twenty-dollar ticket, ask yourself: Is this ticket really worth four hours of my time?
Trials take place at the very end of each court session. They are often scheduled for “special” sessions, because they can take many hours to complete depending on the amount of evidence and the quantity of witnesses.
To sum up, the order (usually) is as follows:
Do not, under any circumstance, plead guilty to a criminal case just because you want to leave court. I cannot emphasize how the impulsive decision to enter a guilty plea will inevitably bring about negative consequences in the long-run. Once you plead guilty to a criminal charge and waive all of your rights, you immediately have a conviction on your record. This criminal conviction will prevent you from obtaining many types of employment and from being admitted to many colleges/universities and vocational programs. In addition, it may have extremely adverse consequences on your immigration status. if you are not a United States Citizen and plead guilty to certain criminal offenses in municipal court, you may find yourself in removal (deportation) proceedings.
Remember point number one: be patient.
If you cannot afford an attorney, each Municipal Court in New Jersey has a form for defendants to apply for the Public Defender (Form 5A). The judge reviews your form and if you are below a certain income level, a Public Defender will be appointed to represent you. If you are above a certain income level, and are facing a criminal conviction, it is absolutely in your best interest to invest in a defense attorney to represent you. Criminal convictions in Municipal Court can complicate your life for five years or more depending on whether you’ve paid all your fines and complied with the penalties imposed.
Make certain to attend all court appearances. Municipal court judges have the power to issue warrants for your arrest if you fail to appear when summoned to do so. Defendants mistakenly believe that the charge will go away with time. This is not true. I have represented many clients who were stopped for a minor traffic offense and once the police officer asks for identification, the fifteen-year-old-warrant pops up and that client ends up in jail. Fines are increased, and the prosecutor is less willing to cooperate with a plea deal because you disrespected the court for so many years. Defendants have tried to argue (unsuccessfully) that their address changed, or they moved to another state.
Do the right thing and be responsible: show up for your court appointment!
If you go to court alone and the Prosecutor is strongly recommending that you retain legal counsel, be polite and accept his suggestion. At a minimum, most defense attorneys offer free thirty-minute consultations. Some attorneys even offer Free Case Evaluations. Take advantage of these free offerings and learn about the strengths and weaknesses of your case.
If you exercise your right to a trial and are found guilty but disagree with the court’s decision, you have 20 days to appeal the conviction. Judges are human, and they can make mistakes. Once you file your notice of appeal, a different judge, from a different court (Superior Court), will hear the evidence anew. perhaps on appeal, the superior court will reverse the lower court’s decision.
Again, before you invest a lot of time and money pursuing an appeal all alone, meet with an experienced defense attorney for a second opinion.
Mr. Peyrouton is a Criminal Defense Attorney in Hackensack, Bergen County, NJ.