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How Do New Jersey Municipal Courts Work?

The municipal courts in New Jersey are courts of limited jurisdiction operating within municipality boundaries. New Jersey Municipal Courts constitute the majority of courts in the state and mostly handle:

  • Indictable offenses such as simple assault and petty theft
  • Municipal ordinance offenses such as violation of building code
  • Traffic offenses such as parking tickets, speeding ticket, traffic infraction, misdemeanor DWI
  • Other minor offenses.

Under N. J. Stat. § 2B:12–1, every municipality in New Jersey must establish a municipal court or enter into a partnership with another municipality to develop a central municipal court. Otherwise, the Superior Court in that vicinage will handle cases, with costs borne by the municipality, until establishing a municipal court. By law, the single municipal court only has jurisdiction over matters arising within the district while the central municipal court has jurisdiction over cases in the partner municipalities.

According to a report by the New Jersey Judiciary, 350 municipal judges in 381 municipal courts handled over 6,128,000 cases in 2018. Under NJ Stat. § 2B: the Mayor appoints 12–4 judges of municipal courts with confirmation by the city council while the governor appoints judges of central municipal courts with confirmation by the Senate.

Nominees for municipal judgeship must also meet statutory requirements and serve a term of three years unless they are removed from office or incapacitated. Per NJ Stat. § 2B:12–8, if a city or municipality has more than one judge, the Mayor may appoint a municipal judge as Chief Judge, responsible for assigning cases among judges. Municipal judges are assisted by municipal court personnel, such as the court administrator appointed by confirmation of the Supreme Court. The court administrator has the following duties:

  • General administration of the court including case processing, scheduling, preparation, and caseload management
  • Supervise, evaluate, and schedule all municipal court employees
  • Prepare, certify, and deliver the municipal court payroll to the Finance Department.
  • Maintain, collect, and report all monies received by the Municipal Court in the appropriate format as designated by the chief financial officer and the municipal auditor
  • Prepare and present the annual municipal court budget to the finance committee, Mayor, and city council.
  • Coordinate interdepartmental issues and administers oaths of office
  • Prepare, record, collect and report all matters related to bail bonds and forfeiture.
  • Ensure the municipal court’s compliance with all city, state, and federal rules, regulations, and statutes

Cases in municipal courts typically begin with an arrest, issuance of a citation, or summons for civil litigations. A citation is an official notice that is issued instead of detention. It contains details concerning the defendant, their charges, and a date to appear in court. On the other hand, an offender who commits an indictable crime such as a simple assault will be arrested, although they may be able to post bail or bond and answer their charges in court later. If a defendant fails to appear in court, they will forfeit their bond, and the courts may issue a warrant for their arrest. Meanwhile, a defendant will receive a summons for non-indictable offenses like violation of municipal building code. If such a defendant fails to appear, the court will find them in contempt, and proper administrative or criminal liabilities may follow.

New Jersey municipal courts conduct trials based on the Municipal Court Procedures Manual. Generally, municipal courts follow a speedy trial program and begin with establishing a probable cause hearing. For indictable offenses, if the court finds probable cause for trial, the court will schedule a hearing date and forward all court papers to the assigned municipal prosecutor, also known as the county prosecutor.

When a case goes to trial, a municipal prosecutor represents the state while the defendant may employ a lawyer’s services or choose to represent himself or herself. If a defendant needs an attorney and is certified unable to afford one, the municipality will assign a public defender to represent them.

Trials for non-indictable offenses follow a similar pattern and may occur immediately or scheduled for a later date. It begins with a “first court appearance” where the defendant enters their plea. The court may impose a penalty immediately for a guilty plea, including community service, fines, probation, or split sentence. Conversely, for a not-guilty plea, the court will schedule a trial date and issue a subpoena for witnesses, if required.

Penalties and sentencing follow the same pattern as in a guilty plea. However, the court may reduce the penalty, set up a payment plan for fines, or allow periodic service of imprisonment. Although most indictable offenses heard in municipal courts do not end in jail, the court may impose up to 12 months imprisonment on offenders.

Municipal court trials are open to the public, but public hearings may be restricted in matters deemed confidential or sensitive. Confidential topics include juvenile hearings and proceedings intended to protect the privacy of witnesses in many cases. The New Jersey Judiciary maintains a public directory of municipal court locations and contact information.

Furthermore, under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA), the public may retrieve publicly available case information from their official custodian. Depending on the records sought, requesters may visit the court in person or use the central online repository for municipal court cases. The searcher may use the complaint number, ticket number, license number, and name related to the case to query the database.

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