Our attorneys regularly represent people and businesses in New Jersey municipal courts accused of reckless driving.
New Jersey law states that someone who drives “heedlessly, in a willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others, in a manner so as to endanger or be likely to endanger, a person or property,” is guilty of reckless driving. The punishment is jail time of up to 60 days or a fine between $50 and $200, or both, with five points assessed against the person’s driving record. If convicted a second time of reckless driving, the punishment is up to 3 years in jail or a fine between $100 and $500, or both. New Jersey traffic law provides certain fixed penalties for reckless driving, with a statutory provision that allows “sentence enhancement.” Penalties are greater for those found to have willfully violated the reckless driving statute. Courts consider the difference between reckless driving and a willful violation of the reckless-driving statute to be a matter of degree, between “likely to endanger a person or property” and “highly likely to endanger a person or property.”
New Jersey Municipal courts have discretion to suspend a driver’s license for reckless driving, but a municipal court or Superior Court judge must articulate the reasons for imposing a period of license suspension. The following factors help judges determine whether to impose a license suspension under New Jersey law and the length of suspension:
- the nature and circumstances of the driver’s conduct, including whether the conduct posed a high risk of danger to the public or caused physical harm or property damage;
- the driver’s driving record, including the driver’s age and length of time as a licensed driver;
- the number, seriousness, and frequency of the driver’s prior infractions;
- whether a long time passed since the most recent violation or whether the nature and extent of the driver’s driving record indicates a substantial risk of committing another violation;
- whether the character and attitude of the driver indicate a likelihood of committing another violation;
- whether the driver’s conduct was the result of circumstances unlikely to recur;
- whether a license suspension would cause excessive hardship to the driver or her dependants; and
- the need for personal deterrence.
- The court may consider any other relevant factors as well. The weight attributed to factors the court considers is more important than the number of factors that apply. Courts can also consider motor vehicle laws that impose mandatory license suspensions.
All motorists are presumed to know the law, so ignorance of a law or sentencing provisions is not a defense to reckless driving.
Courts may not impose a license suspension arbitrarily. When a reckless-driving conviction means losing driving privileges, it triggers certain rights, such as the right to counsel. Courts recognize that in New Jersey, a license to drive is necessary for many that drive as a primary means to travel to work and other daily errands. Therefore, procedural safeguards apply to sentencing in New Jersey municipal courts and Superior Courts.
The elements for a reckless driving charge overlap with elements of other charges, such as death by auto or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Because of the interrelatedness of the charges, they are often merged into the more serious charge. The outcomes of these overlapping charges can impact each other, most notably when a guilty plea or conviction on one charge precludes prosecution of the other charge for constitutional “double jeopardy” reasons. Courts look to whether each offense requires proof of an additional fact not necessary for the other offense, making them different for double jeopardy purposes. Additionally, courts look to whether the evidence that establishes guilt in the first prosecution is identical to the evidence for the second prosecution. The second offense will be barred from prosecution if based solely on evidence from the first prosecution. New Jersey municipal courts have jurisdiction over motor vehicle violations, which in New Jersey are not considered to be crimes, but only petty offenses. However, because the related proceedings in the municipal courts are “quasi-criminal” in nature, the offenses must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
In contrast, municipal courts do not have jurisdiction over indictable offenses such as death by auto. In those cases, the Superior Court of New Jersey can adjudicate both the indictable offenses and any related lesser offenses. In fact, municipal court judges should refrain from deciding cases of driving while intoxicated if the cases involved serious personal injuries or death until determining from the county prosecutor that no related indictable offense is involved. Death-by-auto charges may be tried before a jury; driving-while-intoxicated charges do not have the same right to a trial by jury. If the prosecutor confirms that no indictable offense is involved, the municipal court may proceed with the motor vehicle charges.
Charges of reckless driving, especially when coupled with other charges, can be difficult to navigate, and legal representation is imperative. At McLaughlin & Nardi, LLC, our attorneys appear in municipal courts throughout the state to represent people facing charges. We can help. E-Mail us or call 973-890-0004 to schedule a consultation.