Howes & Howes, Attorneys at Law

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The “unsafe driving” surcharge will create a backlog in New Jersey’s municipal courts

As the powers-that-be press municipal courts to increase collection of the Unsafe Driver Surcharge, motorists and the municipal court bar will react by taking more cases to trial.

Nearly five months have passed since the politicians in Trenton imposed a $250 surcharge on each conviction for “unsafe driving”.  On this website, we have argued that the new surcharge is nothing more than a tax on the middle class.  Nearly five months of experience have shown that this surcharge leads to unfair and heavy penalties for minor infractions committed by safe drivers.

Many New Jersey motorists drive for years without receiving a summons.  Imagine someone with a clean driving record for a decade who doesn’t slow down sufficiently when entering one of New Jersey’s many designated “safe corridors”.  The motorist receives a four-point ticket for speeding.  On the appointed court date, the prosecutor adjusts the offense to “unsafe driving”, a no-point summons.

Since the event happened in a “safe corridor”, the fine is doubled.  On top of that there is a $250 surcharge.  Imagine the motorist’s dismay when the court assesses over $500 in penalties for this one minor infraction!

Over the past few months prosecutors have agreed to adjust minor summonses to other offenses that do not carry the $250 surcharge.  The law allows the prosecutor to amend a moving violation to a no-point offense such as “obstructing traffic” or “delaying traffic” when the facts of the case support it. 

That natural trend has brought a strong reaction from above.  Why?  Because the state government’s finances depend on collection of the $250 surcharge.  Municipal courts must now explain the presiding judge every time they use “obstructing traffic” instead of “unsafe driving”.  As such, municipal judges and prosecutors are more reluctant to dispense this kind of justice.

In law as in nature, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The motorist has another option is to have a trial in these cases.  Simple matters that formerly took only a few minutes will take a half hour of court time.  The municipal courts are an instrument of public safety, but the 2004 state budget has made them unwilling collection agents for the politicians in Trenton.

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