For the average citizen, the first interaction with the judicial system is either municipal court or jury duty. Municipal court handles speeding tickets, ordinance violations and lesser criminal matters.
But it’s a mistake not to take it seriously. Going to municipal court without first getting legal counsel could come back to haunt you. Let’s examine some common misconceptions that get people in trouble.
Myth #1: Municipal court offenses are not ‘real crimes’
Criminal offenses fall into two categories. The most serious crimes (indictable offenses) are handled in Superior Court. Everything else goes through municipal court: traffic offenses, hunting and fishing violations, local ordinance infractions, and minor crimes such as shoplifting, simple assault, DUI or marijuana.
But many municipal court offenses are punishable by jail time, license suspension, community service, mandatory classes and/or court fines. They are “real” crimes that will appear on background checks. Some, like drunk driving and drug possession, cannot be plea bargained. Many people discover too late that skipping their court date or strolling in late – or simply representing themselves -- has severe consequences.
Myth #2: If the arresting officer doesn’t show up, I’m home free!
Municipal court matters are handled in batches on certain days. The officer will usually show up if their presence is indicated on the summons. But if the officer does not show up, it does not automatically mean your ticket is ripped up.
The judge could reschedule your court appearance to another date (and if you showed up the officer will make sure to be there next time). The judge could also decide that the officer’s testimony is not necessary to find you in violation.
Myth #3: If there’s a mistake on the ticket the judge has to dismiss it.
Sorry, no. A simple mistake, such as an error in your address or a missed checkbox, will not get you off the hook. The old “I never signed the ticket” trick won’t work either. Tickets can be challenged if there is a material error (such as the wrong offense or no recorded speed on a speeding ticket). There are many valid grounds for challenging a traffic violation, such as an unwarranted traffic stop or illegal search. But the judge won’t dismiss the ticket because your middle name is misspelled.
Myth #4: There’s nothing an attorney can do for me in municipal court.
You have the right to talk to the prosecuting attorney or to present your arguments to the judge. But the average citizen does not know what to argue or how to negotiate with officers of the court. For example, giving the judge your eloquent justification for speeding is mostly giving your admission of speeding.
If nothing else, having a lawyer moves you up the list. Contested matters without legal representation are put at the end of the docket – but you still have to sign in at the appointed hour. A lawyer will know the applicable law and which evidence will sway the court, or where the realistic middle ground lies to work out the most favorable deal with the prosecutor. And an honest lawyer will tell you if there truly is nothing they can do to get a better outcome than you would get on your own.