New Jersey Supreme Court Rules on Sentencing Factors in Careless Driving Cases

Every New Jersey resident knows about the importance that driving plays in everyday life in the State.  Free and easy access to a car is a prerequisite to many daily activities.  At the same time, motor vehicle infractions are a common occurrence in the State.  Most New Jersey drivers will receive a motor vehicle summons for a moving violation, and be required to appear in a New Jersey Municipal Court, at some point during their driving career.  Careless driving is one of the most common moving violations in New Jersey.  A conviction for this offense will, at a minimum, result in a charge of two points against a license, as well as the imposition of fines.  Depending upon the facts and circumstances of the case, a Municipal Court judge can also impose a license suspension and jail time in a careless driving case.  In the recent decision of State v. Palma, decided September 30, 2014, the Court outlined the factors that municipal judges are supposed to use in sentencing a driver convicted of careless driving.  In light of the frequency with which careless driving summonses are issued, every New Jersey driver should have some familiarity with these factors.

First, the Court found that careless driving is a motor vehicle, as opposed to a criminal, offense.  Accordingly, sentencing factors outlined in the State’s Criminal Code and/or used in criminal cases cannot appropriately be adapted to careless driving cases.  Thus, the Court held that careless driving sentences should be guided by factors used in motor vehicle cases, and/or those outlined in the State’s Motor Vehicle Code.

As to the specific factors to be used in careless driving cases, particularly those in which the Municipal Court judge is contemplating a license suspension or custodial term, the Court recalled the case of State v. Moran, a reckless driving case.  Although reckless driving is a different offense, the Court found that the sentencing factors outlined in Moran could be used to channel the wide sentencing discretion that Municipal Court judges have in careless driving cases.

The Court then set forth the seven Moran/reckless driving factors, as follows:

1.  The nature and circumstances of the defendant’s conduct, including whether the conduct posed a high risk of danger to the public or caused physical harm or property damage;

2.  The defendant’s driving record, including the defendant’s age and length of time as a licensed driver, and the number, seriousness, and frequency of the prior infractions;

3.  Whether the defendant was infraction-free for a substantial period before the most recent violation or whether the nature and extent of the defendant’s driving record indicates that there is a substantial risk that s/he will commit another violation;

4.  Whether the character and attitude of the defendant indicate that s/he is likely or unlikely to commit another violation;

5.  Whether the defendant’s conduct resulted from circumstances unlikely to recur;

6.  Whether a license suspension would cause excessive hardship to the defendant and/or their dependents; and

7.  The need for personal deterrence.

The Court went on to state that a Municipal Court judge can consider other relevant factors in formulating a sentence in any particular case, thus creating room for unique personal circumstances to impact upon the sentence imposed.  Additionally, the Court cautioned that the number of factors found to apply in a particular case is not necessarily as important as the weight accorded to each factor.  Thus, the foregoing factors are not to be applied to any given case in a wooden or static way, but must be customized to respond to the underlying facts and circumstances that preceded the issuance of the summons.

Application of the foregoing factors to any given case is not a simple matter, and requires the skill of a trained attorney who understands New Jersey Municipal Court practice and procedure.  Further, even though much of the Palma Court’s discussion distinguished between Motor Vehicle and Criminal matters, most criminal defense attorneys routinely handle motor vehicle matters in New Jersey Municipal Courts.  If you have been issued a motor vehicle summons or summonses – particularly in a case where there was personal injury or property damage – you will almost certainly get a better result in your case if you go to court with a trained criminal attorney who handles municipal matters as part of their practice.

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