Updated Nov. 12 2018

As New Jersey traffic attorneys, we are sometimes asked, “can I go to jail for careless driving?” There is no clear cut answer, and you should consult with a New Jersey traffic defense attorney right away if you receive a ticket for careless driving. As we explain below, there are a number of factors and the issue is currently on appeal before the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Related: Traffic Tickets, Points for New Jersey Traffic Violations, Criminal Law.


Careless driving, governed by N.J.S.A. 39:4-97, is one of the more serious traffic tickets. Basically, careless driving occurs when someone drives carelessly: ““A person who drives a vehicle carelessly, or without due caution and circumspection, in a manner so as to endanger, or be likely to endanger, a person or property, shall be guilty of careless driving.” Reckless driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-96, is similar, but more severe: “A person who drives a vehicle heedlessly, in willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others, in a manner so as to endanger, or be likely to endanger, a person or property, shall be guilty of reckless driving and be punished by imprisonment in the county or municipal jail for a period of not more than 60 days, or by a fine of not less than $50.00 or more than $200.00, or both. On a second or subsequent conviction he shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than three months, or by a fine of not less than $100 or more than $500, or both.”

Reckless driving is very serious. It states in the law itself that you could go to jail for up to 60 days. If you are ticketed for reckless driving in New Jersey, you should immediately contact an attorney. But careless driving does not state that you can go to jail if convicted. However, a related law does allow the judge to give a sentence of up to 15 days in jail to people who are convicted of many different moving violations.

The question is, how does the judge decide if the defendant goes to jail for careless driving? There are no specific criteria. There is a Supreme Court case, State v. Moran, 202 N.J. 311 (2010), which states the different criteria for suspending a person’s license. After that case was decided, Diana Plama hit a pedestrian in Red Bank, New Jersey, and did not even realize it (the pedestrian ultimately died two months later). Another driver flagged her down at a red light. She was not on her cell phone, she was not drunk or intoxicated, and there was no evidence that she fell asleep. It was actually entirely unclear why she hit the pedestrian and why she didn’t notice it. She ultimately pleaded guilty to careless driving and the Municipal Court judge suspended her license, fined her, and sentenced her to 15 days in jail – the maximum for traffic violations in New Jersey.

The Municipal Court judge reasoned that “someone was murdered” and that was the only justification for the sentence. The judge stated that this was sufficient under State v. Moran to suspend her license, and therefore, it was sufficient to send her to jail. Diana Palma argued that the bare fact that a person had died did not justify the sentence and that the municipal court was not justified in applying the factors in State v. Moran without more evidence. The case is currently on appeal in the Supreme Court case of State v. Palma, A-41-12. The court will have to decide what criteria municipal court judges should use if they want to sentence drivers to jail for careless driving.

Remember, the police and prosecutors have teams of people working to put alleged criminals in jail. In the process, they may overstep their bounds or arrest innocent people.  If you have any question or you or a loved one were accused of a crime, please do not hesitate to contact us for a 100% free consultation.

Raff & Raff, LLP
Attorneys at Law
30 Church Street
Paterson, NJ 07505

Tel: (973) 742-1917
Fax: (973) 742-2454


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