No one is required to hire a lawyer to appear for your case in municipal court. However, many traffic and criminal offenses carry serious penalties. You should always consult with an attorney to discuss the penalties you may face before you appear in municipal court. Just like you would never operate on yourself if you needed a doctor, you should not appear in court without an attorney if you face serious tickets or criminal offenses.

municipal court

Is It Possible To Just Pay The Ticket?

Some parking tickets and traffic tickets that carry no points can be paid online or at the court before your court date. If your ticket does not say “court appearance required”, you can pay the fine listed on the ticket or contact the court if the fine amount is not listed on the ticket.

Pro Tip: Remember to pay the ticket before the date listed on the summons. If you pay the fine late, the court may assess additional fees and costs. And if you fail to pay the fine on the ticket, the court may suspend your driver’s license or issue a bench warrant and require you to appear before the Judge in court.

When Are Court Appearances Mandatory?

You must appear in court for all criminal matters, such as drug charges, shoplifting, assault, trespassing and harassment. You must also appear in court for all serious traffic offenses, including Driving While Intoxicated, Driving While Suspended, or tickets that state “court appearance required.” When court appearances are mandatory, you cannot just pay your fine online even if you wish to plead guilty. In these cases, you should absolutely consult with an attorney to discuss the facts of your case and any possible defense.

A court appearance is always required in criminal matters, such as an assault, shoplifting, harassment or drug charge. In traffic or other matters, if “court appearance required” is checked on the ticket, you must appear in court at the time and place indicated, even if you wish to plead guilty. Court appearances are also mandatory when:

  • You want to go to trial
  • There is a range for the fine the Judge can impose on your ticket
  • You were involved in an accident

How Do I Plead Not Guilty to My Summons?

In order to plead “not guilty” you must notify the court before the ourt date. If you retain an attorney, he or she will be able to send in a letter of representation and plead not guilty by fax or mail. Attorneys are often to send in letters of representation and waive your first appearance before your first court date. If you forget to call the court on time and do not hire an attorney, you may have to appear in court just to plead not guilty in person. This can be very time consuming and may take a while before the Judge calls you up for your first appearance. This can be especially frustrating if you need to go to work, or if you have night court and need to get home to your family.

Pro Tip: If you plan to plead “not guilty”, you should contact the court at least 7 days before the court date. If you hire an attorney, they are often able to plead you “not guilty” the day before your first appearance.

What Happens When I Appear In Court For My Summons?

If you do not have an attorney, you should generally get to court before court starts so you can sign in and get in line to speak to the prosecutor. If you speak to the prosecutor, you will be offered a plea offer. If you reject the plea offer, your case will be scheduled for trial. The Judge will allow you a reasonable postponement in order to hire your own attorney.

If you have an attorney, they will speak to the prosecutor. The prosecutor meets with all attorneys first before speaking to people who are not represented by attorneys. This is because attorneys often appear in numerous courts each day.

When your attorney meets with the prosecutor, they will discuss the facts of your case and argue any legal and evidentiary issues in support of your defense. In most cases, this may lead to a downgrade to your traffic ticket or criminal complaint to a lesser violation or offense. In some cases, your attorney will be able to successfully move to dismiss the summons based upon legal reasons or by filing motions on your behalf.

After cases with attorneys are heard, the Judge will hear cases without attorneys. Trials are held at the very end of the court session. The Judge presides over all trials and determines whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty. The Prosecutor’s witnesses testify first. If you have an attorney, he or she will cross-examine the officers and witnesses. If you do not have an attorney, you will be permitted to question the witnesses yourself, but will be required to be familiar with all court and evidence rules. After the Prosecutor finishes the State’s case, the defendant can call witnesses and present evidence. The defendant does not have to present any evidence and is presumed innocent. The State must prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Judge will decide whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty. If the defendant is found guilty, the Judge will impose sentence. The sentence will be based upon the summons charged and any mandatory penalties that are required by law. All fines are expected to be paid at sentencing.

Pro Tip: The prosecutor is a professional attorney and tries municipal court cases every week. You should not attempt to defend your first trial against a prosecutor. You should always consult with an attorney and decide if you need to hire an attorney for your trial. Howard P. Lesnik, Esq., is a board-certified trial attorney by the New Jersey Supreme Court and appears in State and Municipal Courts every week.

Can I Go To Jail For My Municipal Court Case?

Any criminal disorderly persons offense carries a maximum penalty of 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. A third DWI can also carry a mandatory 180 days in jail. Driving While Suspended offenses can also carry mandatory jail for repeat offenders and if you are suspended for DWI. Even some traffic offenses can carry a discretionary jail sentence. This means that jail is not mandatory BUT the Judge can decide to sentence you to a county jail term.

Can My License Be Suspended In Municipal Court?

Many traffic offenses and offenses involving drugs require mandatory license suspensions. Other traffic offenses, such as speeding tickets with excessive speeds, can carry discretionary driver’s license suspensions. Again, this means the Judge can decide whether to suspend your license AND for how long. This can also be based upon your driving history which is contained in your driver’s abstract. The court has access to your driver’s abstract and the Judge will review it before sentencing you if you are found guilty or if you plead guilty. If you are assessed surcharges and do not pay these fines, your license can also be suspended.

Will I Have To Perform Community Service For My Municipal Court Case?

Community service can be imposed for most criminal offenses and is mandatory for certain traffic offenses. You should consult with an attorney to see if you face the possibility of community service for the charges on your criminal complaint or traffic tickets. If you are required to do community service, you must complete the hours required by the Judge or you will have to appear in court again for your case.

Are There Points Assessed For My Traffic Tickets? How Many?

Points are assessed by the Motor Vehicle Commission and not by the court. If you are issued a ticket that carries points, you can try to ask the prosecutor to reduce the amount of points you face. If you retain an attorney, he or she will try to negotiate a “no-point” ticket.

Can I Apply For A Conditional Discharge In Municipal Court?

Certain people charged with drug offenses who have never been convicted before may be eligible to apply for a conditional discharge. If you are granted a conditional discharge, you will be “supervised” for 6 months to a year by the Court. During this time, you may be drug tested and cannot be arrested for any new offenses. There are mandatory fines that will be assessed by the court. If you successfully complete the conditional discharge program, your charges will be dismissed, and you can move to expunge the arrest six months after you complete the program. This is a program for first offenders only and you are only eligible if you have never applied for a diversionary program in New Jersey or any other State.

I Had To Post Bail In Municipal Court. Will I Get It Back?

If the court required bail to be posted in your case, it will not be returned until after your case is over. If you fail to appear for any court hearing, the Judge will forfeit your bail and you will lose any money posted for your case. Once your case is finished, the bail will be discharged. This means it will be returned to the person who posted the bail. If you posted the bail, it will be returned to you or you can even apply it towards your fines. If someone else posted the bail, it will be returned to that person and you cannot use it toward your fines. The person who posted the bail must bring the receipt along with identification to have the bail returned by the Court.

What If I Disagree With The Judge’s Decision? Can I File A Municipal Appeal?

If you want to appeal your municipal court case, you must file your appeal within 20 days after the Judge’s decision. The appeal is heard in the Superior Court in the County where the municipal court is located. You must pay a filing fee and order a transcript of the municipal court hearing. The municipal appeal will be decided in Superior Court based upon the transcript and evidence presented in municipal court. It is not a new trial. Instead, the Superior Court will review the transcript to determine if the municipal court Judge made mistakes of facts or law on your case. This can be done without an attorney, but since it involves technical legal and procedural requirements, you should retain an attorney to file the appeal an appear in Superior Court.

Pro Tip: If you file a municipal appeal, you can request that the municipal court delay your sentencing until after the Superior Court decides your appeal.

Contact Howard P. Lesnik, Esq. Immediately

I am a New Jersey criminal trial attorney board certified by the NJ Supreme Court. New Jersey’s municipal laws are extremely complex. Anyone who is charged with a SERIOUS municipal court case needs to have an experienced criminal defense attorney. If you are a family member were issued a criminal summons or serious traffic ticket in New Jersey, contact me immediately so I can review your case and the evidence against you and advise you as to all possible defenses to make sure that you are properly represented. In many cases and circumstances a successful defense can lead to a downgrade or even the dismissal of the charges against you. Please contact me now by email, by phoning 908.264.7701, or by completing the form to the right to schedule your complimentary 30-minute strategy session.


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