UPDATED SEPTEMBER 12,2019
Article by Daniel A. Levy, Esq.
Clients who have received traffic tickets often ask me many of the same questions about how the New Jersey court system generally handles tickets. Therefore, I wanted to publish some common questions and general answers to questions about New Jersey traffic tickets. In this first installment, I address three common questions: What happens if I miss court? Do I have to go to court or can I plead by mail? If I agree to pay the ticket, can I expunge the traffic ticket from my driving record?Related: Traffic Tickets, Points for New Jersey Traffic Tickets, DUI plea bargaining, DUI/DWI, Expungements
What will happen if I get a traffic ticket and miss court?
The first thing to understand is that not all tickets require a court appearance. The ticket itself will have a box that will be checked off if a court appearance is required. Most relatively minor tickets do not require a court appearance, but all of the serious moving violations, DUI and anything involving drugs, and serious regulatory violations (like no insurance or driving while suspended) will require an appearance. If you miss your court date, what will happen next will vary from town to town. Some towns will immediately issue a warrant for your arrest and will only lift the warrant if you post bail. Some towns will simply send you a new court notice and refrain from issuing the warrant if you only miss one appearance. Some towns will issue the warrant, but will lift it if you simply write a letter and ask for a new court date. Receiving the warrant is worse than most people think – they may think that it’s not a big deal since the traffic ticket may not be serious, but if they are pulled over and they have a warrant, they may find out that they are going to be spending the night in jail. Also, if you miss the court date and simply ignore the ticket for a period of years, municipal court judges are allowed to impose additional penalties for missing court. So that $85 ticket from 5 years ago could turn into a $500 ticket.
But in all towns, an attorney will almost always be able to avoid the warrant and bail provided that the attorney is hired before the court date and appears for you. An attorney would also be able to assist in avoiding added penalties for ignoring a traffic ticket for an extended period.
Can I plead to a traffic ticket by mail?
For the most part, you can plead in some way by mail and occasionally you can completely avoid going to court. All traffic tickets are designated as either “payable” or “non-payable”. A payable ticket may be paid online or in person. When you pay those tickets, you are pleading guilty and paying the fine. The fine will be set by a predetermined payment schedule (ex. speeding ticket for 5mph over the limit may cost you $50-$200, but it’s payable for $85 online). You can also plead not-guilty to a payable ticket by writing a letter. However, all non-payable tickets will require that you go to court. And if you plead not-guilty by mail, you will also receive a court date. If going to court will be very problematic (for example, you live in Florida), you could plead guilty to a non-payable ticket by mail and the judge will set a sentence. However, you really cannot plea bargain in such a case. If you live out of state or have another good reason for why it is very burdensome to get to court, hiring an attorney is a good option. The attorney could work out a plea deal with the municipal prosecutor and argue for a low sentence with the judge. And then all you would need to do is finalize the guilty plea by mailing paperwork provided by your attorney.
Can I expunge a traffic ticket?
This is one of the most common questions that I hear and the easiest one to answer: No. You cannot expunge anything from your driving record. Traffic violations, accidents, regulatory violations, surcharges, etc. are all part of your driving record and they will stay there forever (even if you don’t have a driver’s license). However, the number of “points” on your license will be reduced either by the passage of time (3 points come off every year that you drive without violations) or by completing certain safe driver courses. But the underlying tickets will still stay on your record.