The other day, I appeared in a New Jersey municipal court where the presiding judge had just been appointed. The client I was representing was issued a speeding ticket on the New Jersey Turnpike for going 126 mph. He was also ticketed for reckless driving. Needless to say, I was concerned and so was my client. I had requested all the discovery from the state and it was provided. The radar unit used by the officer to clock my client had been properly tested before and after the shift, and all the certifications were in place and up to date. If I had to go to trial, my defense would have rested on the possible inexperience of the officer operating the instrument, which can be a winning argument, but not one that I really wanted to rely on under these facts.
My biggest concern was the potential for loss of license, which was certainly a possibility due to the high rate of speed. My other concern, although not typically the case, was the imposition of jail time. Many believe that you cannot be sentenced to jail for regular traffic offenses. However, the municipal court judge has the authority to sentence a defendant to jail for just about any traffic infraction. Nonetheless, there is a presumption against imprisonment in most situations.
While waiting to speak with the prosecutor, I was in court sitting with my client as the judge began to put through some plea agreements. You could imagine my concern when the judge informed a defendant (who was represented) who was traveling 110 mph in a 55 mph zone that he would not accept the prosecutor’s plea recommendation and was going to sentence the defendant to jail. He gave the defendant an opportunity to withdraw his plea and set his case down for trial, which he did.
I would like to think that I can win every trial, no matter the circumstance. I was prepared for trial if necessary. If the court was going to back us into a corner, I would come out swinging. But an honest assessment of the case would put the odds in state’s favor. I spoke with the prosecutor, who I had dealt with on several different occasions. He explained that it was the new judge’s policy to sentence people to jail time when they were traveling 100 mph and over. I spoke to him about my nineteen year-old client’s perfect driving record, clean criminal record, college transcripts, volunteer work, etc. I even had my client take a safe driving course before coming to court in hopes to mitigate any proposed plea agreement.
The prosecutor made a recommendation that did not include jail time and agreed to put on the record that he did not feel it was appropriate to sentence my client to jail. I had prepared an argument a few days prior just in case something like this went down. It examined the presumption issue, including case-law to support my claims that it would be legally improper for the judge to sentence my client to jail.
We went before the judge. The prosecutor submitted the plea sheet, and I saw the judge’s face turn red. He advised me immediately that he was not inclined to accept the plea recommendation, but allowed me to argue my case. After he heard my argument, he informed me that he still could not accept the deal, and I set the case down for trial.
Faced with the prospect of going to jail, my client, who had never received a ticket or had any contact with law enforcement, was reduced to tears. I explained the situation to him, and we began to make our final preparations for trial.
But something inside me said to try again. I went back into the prosecutor’s office and we talked for about ten minutes. He agreed to amend the plea recommendation to include a significant loss of license, which would give me the opportunity to re-argue my case at sentencing.
It seemed like an eternity as I argued again for no jail time, as my client had tears in his eyes. Finally, the judge relented. He admonished my client for a bit, but did not sentence him to jail.
As I left the court with my appreciative client, I was reminded of the importance of preparation. I was prepared for trial, and ultimately the arguments I made during sentencing and my clients freedom were a result of that preparation. But should we had to go to trial with my client’s freedom on the line, I would have been ready.
The lesson here is this; there are no simple cases. This was a speeding ticket after all. But as a lawyer, I can never take anything for granted, and preparation is how one guards against the unforeseen. If we had lost at trial, it is probable the judge would have taken his license AND sentenced him to jail. I was able to not only avoid the jail, but also convince the judge to dismiss the reckless driving ticket, which would have tacked on another five points and another suspension from the Motor Vehicle Commission. And as it turned out, the loss of license was for a fair period of time given the speed. My client was ecstatic with the result given what we were up against.
The odd thing is that in the overwhelming majority of courts, a lawyer does not have to worry about jail for speeding tickets. But knowing that it is a possibility should be reason enough to prepare to the fullest.