New Jersey’s court system slowed to a near-halt in March 2020, along with much of New Jersey’s economy, in an effort to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus and the illness it causes, COVID-19. Municipal courts, which hear New Jersey DWI cases, began to resume certain proceedings in April. They have been conducting most matters remotely via telephone or videoconferencing technology since May. Under a plan issued by the New Jersey Supreme Court, this has been known as “Phase 1.” The court has announced that Phase 2 will begin on Monday, June 22. While municipal courts will continue to handle most matters remotely, they will be able to hold DWI trials and other matters in person, subject to social distancing and other public health guidelines.
DWI Trials in Municipal Court
DWI is not a criminal offense under New Jersey law. It is considered a motor vehicle offense. The penalties for a DWI are relatively minor when compared to various criminal offenses, with a maximum jail sentence of 180 days and a maximum fine of $1,000 for a third or subsequent offense. At the same time, the full range of procedures and constitutional protections available in criminal prosecutions do not apply to DWI cases.
The main difference is the nature of trials in DWI cases. Municipal courts have original jurisdiction over all DWI prosecutions, and defendants are not entitled to a trial by jury. A municipal judge will hear the case, render a verdict, and decide on a sentence.
New Jersey Court Closings Due to COVID-19
As of mid-June 2020, New Jersey has had more than 167,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with almost 13,000 deaths. The governor declared an emergency in March, and issued a series of executive orders directing people to stay at home except when performing “essential” tasks, ordering all businesses not deemed “essential” to limit their operations or close entirely. The closure of municipal courts across the state, which began on Monday, March 16, interrupted many pending DWI cases and postponed many new ones.
“Post-Pandemic” Reopening Plan
While many parts of the country are seeing rates of infection increase, New Jersey has been experiencing a decline since mid-April. The state reported about 4,400 new cases on April 15, but only 274 on June 14. New Jersey entered “Stage Two” of the plan to reopen the economy on June 15. The courts are following a similar schedule.
Phase 2 of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s post-pandemic plan starts on Monday, June 22. Municipal courts will continue to hold most proceedings remotely, including all hearings other than trials in DWI cases. Remote proceedings have been permitted since April 24 with the consent of all parties. Under Phase 2, municipal courts may hold DWI trials in person if the parties do not consent to holding it remotely. An order issued on June 9 requires anyone present in a courthouse to wear a mask or other face covering.
Attorney Evan Levow advocates for the rights of people who are facing alleged DWI charges in New Jersey municipal courts. He can help you understand your rights and prepare the best defense possible for your case. Please contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our skilled and experienced team.