In New Jersey, you have the right to be informed of the charges against you, the right to remain silent, and the right to an attorney. While the cases heard in municipal court are usually minor—penalties can include jail time, fines, motor vehicle points, surcharges, and license suspension.
You do not have to hire an attorney to handle your case—you do have the right to represent yourself. However, it often makes sense to hire someone to represent and protect your interests. If you do initially start out by representing yourself, you can also postpone your case, to consult with or hire a lawyer. Should you retain an attorney, you’ll be given time to prepare a defense and obtain discovery.
The discovery process facilitates the defense and prosecution’s ability to request, study, and identify facts from documents and information from each side. Discovery usually includes items like police reports, requests for inspection, and photographs. It may also include witness testimony.
Common municipal court cases
Municipal cases range from traffic and motor vehicle tickets to various offenses such as:
- Simple assault
- Marijuana possession
- Criminal mischief
- Disorderly conduct
- Drug paraphernalia possession
While New Jersey considers these categories as offenses, and not crimes or felonies, you are entitled to the same constitutional protections—and assumed innocent until proven guilty—as someone charged with a crime.
While they are, in general, less severe than indictable offenses, the penalties can still include substantial fines and/or a six-month jail sentence. Generally, a Municipal Court has jurisdiction over cases that only occur within its municipality’s boundaries; hire an attorney familiar with the jurisdiction in which you’ve been charged.
Why you should hire an attorney
A lawyer knows how the police operate, understands the methods by which investigations are conducted, and can recommend the most effective defense against complaints and tickets.
An attorney won’t feel intimidated by a prosecutor, should your case go to trial. Attorneys have the resources to investigate, identify flaws in the prosecution’s case, request and analyze additional evidence, prepare witness and expert testimony, and prepare you for the best and worst-case outcomes.
A municipal court conviction can have far-reaching, unintended consequences that could have been avoided by hiring an experienced attorney. It makes sense to hire an expert with experience and knowledge of the court system.
You’ll want to consider the costs of hiring an attorney, because sometimes the ticket penalties cost far less than the fees an attorney charges. Questions to ask yourself include:
- Which costs more: the fine or the attorney’s fee?
- Can I afford to have points added to my driver’s license?
- Will my car insurance rates rise dramatically if the charge sticks and stays on my record?
An attorney is the only person permitted to give you legal advice—the judge and court staff of the municipal court are not permitted to do so. Your attorney will:
- Meet with you and witnesses, if any.
- Gather and evaluate all information and facts, including witness statements, police documents, government records/reports, and any other pertinent information.
- Compare your case to similar past cases and court decisions to determine legal precedent.
- Provide you with your options and make recommendations.
- Prepare the legal documents needed for court.
- Negotiate a plea bargain, should you choose that option.
- Present your side in court and cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses.
- Appeal the court’s decision, if you are convicted.
How to find a local attorney
If you choose to hire an attorney to assist with your specific case, you’ll want to take the following suggestions into consideration:
Find a lawyer with whom you feel comfortable enough sharing everything honestly and completely about your case.
Consider the lawyer’s area of expertise and prior experience—those are important. When you’re researching lawyers, ask about the type of cases they handle and for a breakdown of that lawyer’s practice. While most attorneys aren’t certified in a specialty, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t an expert in a particular area of the law.
For example, if you’re fighting a traffic offense, hire an attorney who specializes in laws related to driving. Whether it’s a moving violation, DWI/DUI or other violation, the lawyer will work within the law to reduce traffic ticket penalties or negotiate alternative penalties, reduce driver’s license points, or argue to dismiss the ticket completely.
When you start to look for a lawyer, ask friends, family members, and colleagues or associates for recommendations. You can also search advertisements, but be cautious about believing everything you see and read in an ad.
Some communities also have referral services designed to match up people with the attorneys who specialize in the law they need. You can also consult the bar association, which makes referrals according to specific areas of law; these associations also have competency requirements to ensure that the lawyers are properly qualified. Check out the American Bar Association’s online lawyer referral directory here.
Paying for legal fees
The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to representation for anyone who has been accused of a crime for which they could be jailed for six months or more. Remember—innocent until proven guilty. When finances are such that you cannot afford a lawyer, the judge will appoint a private lawyer to represent you pro bono (literally, for the good, or free) or you will be assigned a public defender.
If you do have the finances to pay for an attorney, verify how much the attorney’s fees will cost. Most lawyers require an upfront retainer, which they use to pay for costs associated with your case. If there is money left over at the conclusion of your case, it is returned to you. Make sure that you request all possible fees and charges in writing, too, so that there are no surprises as your case progresses.
The municipal court process
You’ll see a variety of people at your hearing, including the judge, the police officer or complainant who filed the charges against you, the complainant’s lawyer or prosecutor representing the state, and you and your attorney.
The judge explains the charges, and then eventually your case is heard depending on where it falls in the order: requests for adjournment, guilty pleas, contested matters where you’re represented by a lawyer, and other contested matters.
Generally, you do not have to testify on your own behalf—that’s determined by you and your lawyer. Because you are innocent until proven guilty, the onus of proving your guilt falls to the prosecution, via testimony and evidence. Once the prosecution presents its case and rests, your lawyer will counter, present evidence, and possibly call witnesses.
The judge will impose your sentence immediately after a guilty plea or verdict—you can advise the judge of extenuating circumstances you’d like taken into consideration when he or she determines your sentence. The penalties vary based on the offense.