When you get a summons for certain moving violations (speeding, careless driving, failure to yield, etc.), you have two options. (1) plead “guilty” and mail in the money; or (2) plead “not guilty” and get a municipal court date for a hearing. Oftentimes, your best bet is to plead “not guilty” and go to municipal court. Once there, you will have the opportunity to speak with the Prosecutor. After he or she has reviewed your driving history, as they are required to do by law, he or she will let you know whether they offer you a guilty plea to a lesser offense.
Why would you want to do this? Well, if you were charged with Careless Driving (N.J.S.A. 39:97-4), and the Prosecutor offers you a guilty plea to Unsafe Operation (N.J.S.A. 39:97-2), you will not be assessed points for that violation. However, Unsafe Operation does carry a hefty fine and surcharge, whereas Careless Driving does not (but does carry 2 points on your record). Also, if you decide to plead guilty to a lesser charge, you must stand before the Judge, who will decide whether or not to accept your guilty plea, and admit that you committed the violation. If you fail to do so, the Judge cannot find that there is a factual basis for your plea and will not accept it.
The final option is to appear in municipal court, enter a plea of “not guilty” and proceed, at a later date, to trial. If you do not care to plead guilty to a lesser charge, or if the Prosecutor does not make that option available to you, based on the facts of your case and/or your driving history, you may choose to let the Judge decide. The Judge will do this at a trial. There are no jury trials in municipal court. You can choose whether or not to hire an attorney. You must have all evidence and witnesses pertaining to your case at the courthouse at the time of your trial. The police officer who issued the ticket will likely be called as a witness for the Prosecution. If you choose not to hire an attorney, you will have the opportunity to cross-examine all witnesses called by the Prosecution.
If you decide to plead “not guilty” to a summons issued against you, make sure that you appear at municipal court on the time and date of your notice. If you fail to do so, it will likely lead to a bench warrant for your arrest. If you cannot appear at the scheduled time, make sure you contact the court, in writing, in advance of the hearing date in order to request an adjournment.