I am often asked by the victims of negligent drivers whether they need to show up in municipal court for the ticket issued to the negligent driver. The answer to this question is “yes”. Even though the police officer issues the ticket, the officer arrived on the scene after the incident occurred so the other driver, who was not negligent, is the sole witness to the facts of the accident. Moreover, the “request” to appear is actually a “summons” to appear which is mandatory and subject to penalties for non-compliance.
The next area of inquiry by the innocent driver is what takes place in court. The first step is to check in as a witness to the case. Usually the Prosecutor will speak with the witness to explain whether there is a plea offer. Plea offers are extremely common in municipal court. There is usually an offer to downgrade the charge in exchange for a plea of “guilty” to that amended charge. While most Prosecutors will ask the injured person for their “consent” to downgrade the offense, the Prosecutor has the legal right, called “Prosecutorial Discretion”, to downgrade the charge without the consent of the victim. One should keep in mind that such a downgraded charge should not affect any decisions on fault made by the insurance companies. Insurance companies are not bound by the decisions made in municipal courts. Such downgraded charges and guilty pleas also shouldn’t affect any issues presented in a related civil case as the plea is usually entered with a “civil reservation”. That means that the guilty plea is not admissible as evidence of guilt or liability in a civil case where issues of injury or property damage are pursued. All issues in the civil trial must be proven, independent of anything that happened in municipal court.
Denise Mariani is a Shareholder and member of Stark & Stark’s Lawrenceville, New Jersey office, specializing in Accident & Personal Injury Law. For more information, please contact Ms. Mariani.