Negotiating Traffic Tickets In NJ
I wrote this a year or two ago when moonlighting at a small taxi company. It’s based on my experiences with NJ traffic court and my study of the state’s Title 39 law. All research is current as of 2019, but laws change so if you’re reading this later, it might be a good idea to read up on the things I cite. I am not a lawyer (and lawyers wouldn’t sanction a post like this as they’d rather you retain them).
Who is this for? #
You or someone you know may have received a ticket for speeding, cellphone use, window obstruction any other common thing covered under Title 39 (the most common traffic laws officers cite from). This short guide will help you minimize your out of pocket expense, points, and you won’t need a lawyer. I do recommend a lawyer if you are facing over $500 in tickets, but really only in that case. This guide is also only for NJ, every state handles this stuff radically different.
It’s important to remember that traffic courts run as a revenue generator for municipalities. Your goal isn’t usually to fight this system but rather negotiate with it. NJ is a difficult state to get a ticket thrown out by the judge as the one prosecuting you is a trained lawyer and not the officer that wrote you the ticket. The approach I describe won’t work if you act arrogant to the prosecutor or dress like a slob to court. A suit is a good idea, even in 2020. If you know local lawyers or have retained some in the past it may be prudent to name drop to prosecutor, they all know each other. If you don’t, google some that are nearby but don’t regularly practice in that court (for SEO reasons, the traffic court lawyers almost always list the towns they practice in). They will usually ask who you know when you request a statute # to plea to. Always be polite and professional through this!
Remember this point! It really pisses off the prosecutor if you threaten to bring the case to trial as it wastes a ton of their time. So only do this if they are being a real pain about negotiations. They will counter-threaten you pretty hard if you try this, but it’s a bluff. They cannot take your license, that’s up to the judge and/or NJ MVC.
About points: #
Points get assessed by the NJ MVC, not by the court. If you plead guilty to certain offences, points will be assessed. The list of those point amounts for a conviction (conviction meaning anything you plea to or the court finds you guilty of) are here: NJ Points Schedule
Additionally, insurance companies run their own point system that usually assign 1 insurance point to NJ premiums for non-point stuff. This usually has an effect for 3 years, every year of that it goes down a bit. You can often take a $12 online defensive driver course to lower it a bit, but this is company dependent and they will usually only discount you if you do it before renewal. Insurance points systems are proprietary, so I can’t give you a guide on how every company will handle non-point pleas. I can tell you that NJ only allows them to look back 5 years for penalizing you based on driving abstract and most only look back 3 years.
A good amount of Title 39 is literally nonsense. Some of it’s poorly and ambiguously written (windshield obstruction 39:3-74 I’ll write about below). Most legislators are lawyers so they leave things in here for attorneys to use when plea bargaining. If you already got a weird low fine ticket that doesn’t carry points I’d usually say to pay it. If it was a failure to update address ticket or renew something, fix immediately, bring proof to prosecutor and ask them to drop and waive court cost if possible. They often will. If they disagree, get up and pay the court clerk before it goes in front of judge (saves $30-some in court cost)
So we know we don’t want points. NJ got wise to this, so they came up with a way to generate more money: add a mandatory surcharge of $250 for unsafe driving ($100-150 fine) or cellphone operation ($200-300) plea arrangements. If you or your lawyer plead to the latter it only makes sense if it wipes out a stack of tickets. The law also limits how many times you can plea to this, or the fine increases substantially. For most people this is the wrong choice. I provide 2 scenarios for better alternatives.
2 point strategy #
A small 2-point speeding ticket or careless driving carries a modest fine. Unless you already have accrued points, a plea bargain to unsafe operation is a poor deal. When prosecutor offers it politely say: “Would you instead let me plea to 39:4-67?” This is a $54 fine for obstructing traffic. If they say yes you go in front of judge, plea guilty to it, and walk out paying slightly less than $100 with no points on record. If they are uncooperative and you have no MVC points on your abstract, I recommend just paying the ticket or try the plea below this.
4 point strategy #
Prosecutor won’t like the above suggestion usually. It’s too much to ask to pay under $100 to fix a $200 or so ticket when they’d usually get around $400 for a plea arrangement. In this case ask for a 39:4-215 (failure to obey signals, signs, or directions). This is a $100 non-point fine so you walk out paying a little under $150 with costs for what was certainly a worse ticket. They will likely ask how the hell you knew about this plea. This is a good time not to be cocky and instead mention a lawyer they might know. Say you worked with them in the past.
You can ask to change violation to anything under Title 39, and the judge will most likely allow whatever the prosecutor agrees to. The above are two common suggestions, the first most people are familiar with. The second is junk left for traffic attorneys to make a living on. None of this advice is guaranteed to work because quite a bit of it depends on how the court perceives you, and what kind of mood they are in. Tread carefully.
A word on windshield obstruction tickets: #
I mentioned this statute 39:3-74 is written in such a way that anything non-standard attached directly to dash or windshield can get you cited (including car wash or maintenance reminder stickers). However, you cannot be cited for having stuff hanging off your rear-view mirror unless the officer proves it ‘unduly interfered’ with your sight to the front or sides. This likely goes for anything stuck to the dash like dice or an air freshener, but not things stuck to windshield. It’s so poorly written that the attorney general issued a directive exempting EZ-Pass from being stuck to windshield, else half the cars in NJ could be ticketed. Cops mostly use this as an excuse to pull you over and get around that pesky 4th amendment.