The jurisdiction of municipal courts in New Jersey is specified at N.J.S. 2B:12-17. Under that statute, municipal courts have jurisdiction over the following types of cases:
The majority of municipal court cases in New Jersey are those in the first three items on the list above. Conviction on any of the three can disproportionately affect a person's life. Violations of county and municipal ordinances can result in a fine of up to $2,000.00, and jail for up to ninety days. Disorderly persons convictions can result in a jail sentence of up to six months. Additionally, disorderly persons convictions, and even petty disorderly persons convictions, go on a person's permanent criminal record.
Conviction of some traffic violations require suspension of driving privileges. Those offenses include drunk driving (DUI/DWI), driving without insurance, and leaving the scene of an accident. Under many circumstances, driving while driving privileges have been suspended require additional periods of suspension and, sometimes, even jail. Even your more mundane traffic convictions, like disregarding a stop sign, or a traffic signal, or speeding, will cause license suspensions if they sufficiently raise the level of points for moving violations.
Municipal court judges are appointed by the local municipality. Their terms of service are three years. In theory, these judges impartially weigh the evidence. In theory, where doubt as to guilt or innocence exists, these judges resolve that doubt in favor of the defendant's innocence. And most New Jersey municipal court judges do exactly that. Some do not.
For some towns, their municipal courts are nothing more than cash cows. Judges' three-year terms of office are the metaphorical holds that these towns have over their judges. Unless those judges pull in sufficient revenue for the town, they will not be reappointed when their terms expire. Usually, towns that have this “job requirement” do not publicize it.
Metuchen was the exception. It refused to reappoint the late Judge James Bayard Smith, citing Judge Smith's insufficient levying of fines for Borough coffers. This despite the fact that Judge Smith had previously distinguished himself as president of both the Middlesex County Bar Association and the Middlesex County Municipal Judges Association. This despite the fact that Judge Smith was a retired full army colonel, having served in Southeast Asia, and having received the Vietnam Service Medal. It was in this manner that Metuchen chose to honor America's finest.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey was appalled over Metuchen's reason to not reappoint Judge Smith, but it lacked the power to do anything about it. The conclusion drawn by a few municipal court judges from this was, politically, ambition trumps justice. Thus some New Jersey municipal court judges allow this reality to make them less than faithful to their oaths of office. Unfortunately for the many municipal court judges who render justice evenly, this causes the public perception of their performance to be tainted by an appearance of partiality.
Another disgrace is that, to obtain reappointment, some municipal court judges are required to afford special consideration to police officers. When a defendant fails to appear in court, these judges will routinely issue a warrant for the defendant's arrest, and order suspension of the defendant's driver's license. When a police officer fails to appear, on the overwhelming majority of occasions, these judges will require “in the interests of justice” that the defendant make a second (and, sometimes, third or fourth) appearance. “Have to miss another day of work? Gee, that's a shame.” In this manner do some municipal courts coerce defendants to plead guilty, rather than to seek a fair trial before an impartial judge. Police officers strut through these courtrooms as if they own them and, in reality, they do.
In some towns, municipal court judges will almost never make credibility findings in favor of a defendant over the testimony of a police officer. To help judges remember their priorities, police officers in those towns provide a presence in municipal court far beyond that needed to help keep order. These police officers serve as the eyes and ears of the Chief, and the Chief has the ear of the mayor and council.
This section has used the word “some” repeatedly. Obviously, the number of towns and judges involved in the (let's not mince words) corrupt practices described here is impossible to tally. One hopes that “some” in reality means “very few.” Yet, as of January 2014, Eatontown demonstrably selects its municipal court judge, not on the basis of whether he will dispense justice but, rather, on the basis of whether it believes (rightly or wrongly) that he can be relied upon to impose hefty fines. Many lawyers who practice regularly in municipal court have horror stories that they can recount. One practitioner recounts his experiences with disgraceful municipal courts in an article published in the New Jersey Law Journal. In any case, those towns and judges that are part of this “some” make a contemptuous mockery of the “Independence. Integrity. Fairness.” slogan on the municipal court seal. In days of yore, New Jersey called its municipal courts “police courts.” For the towns in question, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Many offenses commonly heard in New Jersey municipal courts are discussed in greater detail on other pages on this site. Those offenses include abandoned cars, assault, bad checks, cds in a motor vehicle, domestic violence, leaving the scene of an accident, lewdness, no insurance, driving while on the revoked list, shoplifting, theft, underage drinking, and urinating in public. Associated sites discuss DUI/DWI, marijuana offenses, prostitution, and drivers licenses. More complete menus are on your left, and at the bottom of this page.
Municipal court defendants need a lawyer. The State's interests are represented by prosecutors. Defendants need a skilled and experienced municipal court lawyer to level the playing field. Allan Marain and Norman Epting, Jr. are New Jersey municipal court lawyers. Their combined experience exceeds sixty-five years. Their backgrounds are more fully listed on other pages on this site. Both have extensive experience successfully representing persons charged with violations handled in municipal court. Both lawyers are available to review your municipal court matter. There is no cost and no obligation for your initial conference with them.