The municipal court decides cases involving alleged violations of city ordinances, motor vehicle laws, and certain disorderly persons offenses. If you have received a ticket for a municipal violation, this article will explain your rights and responsibilities in municipal court.
What is an arraignment?
An arraignment is a court proceeding during which you are informed of the charges against you. When you get a ticket for an ordinance violation, you are given a date and a time to appear in municipal court. On that date, an arraignment is held. At the arraignment, the judge will read the charge that has been filed against you (the defendant) by the prosecuting attorney for the municipality. You must then plead guilty or not guilty. By law, those are the only pleas that a court may accept.
What happens if I plead guilty?
If you plead guilty, you are telling the court that you have committed the act with which you were charged and have violated a valid city ordinance. The judge must then decide what penalty you will receive. At this time, you should have an opportunity to communicate any special circumstances that you feel a judge should consider. The judge will then assess a penalty in accordance with the law, taking into account the seriousness of the offense and any explanation that you have given. If you plead guilty, the judge will find you guilty. Any explanation that you offer later affects the penalty assessed. By pleading guilty, you waive the right to a trial, the right to be represented by an attorney, and the right to appeal the matter. You will not have a chance later to say that the charge against you is not true.
What happens if I plead not guilty?
A plea of not guilty means that you believe you have not violated the law in the manner and form charged on the ticket. When you plead not guilty, the judge will set a date for a trial. At the trial, the municipal prosecutor presents evidence against you, and you will have a chance to tell your side of the story. You do not need to be represented by an attorney in order to plead not guilty. You may represent yourself at the trial. If you plead not guilty, an appearance in court is required. If you wish to change your plea to guilty, the guilty plea must be entered with the judge on or before the date set for trial.
Is there a way to pay for a ticket without appearing in court?
Payment may be made for some tickets out of court. They must, however, be paid for before the date you are ordered to appear in court. If you do not pay by then, and you do not appear in court as ordered, a warrant for your arrest may be issued. To find out if you may pay your fine out of court, contact the municipal court clerk. Allow a few days to go by before calling to make sure that the prosecuting attorney’s office has received a copy of the ticket. You may also pay your traffic ticket fine online. For more information on paying parking and traffic tickets, go to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission Web site.
What if I need to change the date of my arraignment or trial?
The court may grant requests to adjourn (postpone) the date of the hearing. Courts are usually reluctant to adjourn hearings, except in extraordinary circumstances. The sooner a request for an adjournment is made, the more likely it is to be granted. The court may require written proof of your reason for needing to postpone a hearing.
What if I do not appear in court on the date set for my arraignment or trial?
If you do not appear in court on the date set for your arraignment or trial, the court will issue a warrant for your arrest. You will be required to post bond or remain in jail until the next earliest court date. A warrant fee is assessed each time a warrant is issued.
You may have compelling circumstances, such as those listed below, for dismissal and/or negotiation of the penalty assessed for your tickets, even if you are guilty of the conduct alleged:
- You are (a) not employed, (b) going to school full time, (c) recently released from prison, or (d) rely on public benefits and are unable to pay the fine in full at this time.
- The underlying ticket is very old (for example, 10 years old).
- You were not the “bad actor” (for example, if your car was used without your permission and tickets have been issued in your name for the acts of the driver, or if you were incarcerated or otherwise not at the scene when the ticket was issued).
- You did not receive proper notice of the violation or previous hearing (for example, you were not given a copy of a ticket or summons, or you moved and did not receive notice of a new court date—you only recently became aware that a warrant had been issued for your arrest).
If any of these circumstances apply to you, you should let the court know. It may persuade them to reduce you payments or, in some cases, dismiss the ticket outright.
In all matters in which you plead guilty, respectfully ask for the court’s leniency.
What if I have a warrant for my arrest?
If you suspect that you have a warrant for your arrest, there are options available to resolve the problem. Warrants for minor traffic infractions and time-to-pay issues can often be cancelled upon payment in full. Other cases require an appearance before the judge—warrants on these cases can be resolved by a voluntary appearance when court is in session. By appearing voluntarily, you are generally able to avoid being arrested at an inconvenient and embarrassing time. Do not appear in person. If you show up at court without first talking to court staff, you might be detained. Commonly, appearing voluntarily allows most people to avoid spending nights in jail and being required to post bond, and allows for same-day resolution and release. If you appear voluntarily to resolve your warrant, you must give prior notice and contact the court.
Please note that each case has its own unique circumstances, and warrants are handled according to the judge’s discretion. To find out if you have an outstanding warrant, or to ask about resolving your individual warrant, contact the court as soon as possible.
Am I entitled to a municipal public defender?
You should ask for an attorney if you cannot afford one. You may have a right to have an attorney appointed to represent you if you are facing sanctions that are serious, such as a jail term, a suspension of driving privileges, or a substantial fine, and the municipal court finds that you cannot afford an attorney.
The court may require you to fill out an application for a public defender and provide proof of your income. The application fee may not exceed $200.
This article is from the July-August 2009 issue of Looking Out for Your Legal Rights®.