Summary of New Jersey Criminal Law
Unlike other states, New Jersey doesn't use the traditional criminal law terms like "felonies" and "misdemeanors" in its legal code. As a result, many people, raised on television shows like "Law & Order," or "The Wire," get confused when discussing New Jersey's complex system of criminal justice.
Basically, NJ has the same exact division between felonies and misdemeanors as other states do, we just use different names for them. In most states, the highest crimes,the ones requiring grand jury indictment, are called "felonies." These consist of offenses like rape, murder and burglary. In NJ, we don't call them "felonies." Instead, we call them "crimes."
In most states, the lower form of crimes, the ones that do not require grand jury indictment, are called misdemeanors. Even though conviction for one of these offenses will show up on one's "criminal record," New Jersey, for some reason, does not consider these to be "criminal offenses" (even though they are). Instead, NJ uses the term "Disorderly Person Offense" or "Petty Disorderly Person Offense" to describe them. This causes a great deal of confusion to many people. Even new attorneys are confused by these seemingly illogical categories and terms.
Finally, being found guilty of minor offenses, such as "playing loud music/disturbing the peace," not licensing your dog properly, or minor building code violations can result in something called a "municipal ordinance" being imposed upon you. This is the least punitive form of punishment people can receive in the state. Sometimes, attorneys are able to work with municipal prosecutors and have disorderly person and petty disorderly persons charges amended to a municipal ordinance, but only if the evidence against the defendant is weak and the underlying facts are appropriate under the circumstances. That said, being convicted of a municipal ordinance can still show up on a background check.
Interestingly, although many states consider DWI/DUI to be a criminal offense, the state of New Jersey does not. Instead, these offenses are considered "traffic offenses." Because of this, there is a chance that a conviction of a DWI/DUI in the state of NJ may not show up in a purely criminal background check conducted by an employer. Of course, there's no guarantee.
Here's a brief summary of the fines and penalties people may face if they are convicted of a criminal (felony) or disorderly person (misdemeanor) charge in the State of New Jersey:
FIRST DEGREE CRIMES
With first and second degree crimes there is a so-called "presumption of incarceration." This means that if you are found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, then, generally speaking, you must go to jail. You can't get probation or house arrest. Here, one faces a possible sentence between ten (10) and twenty (20) years in jail. These charges are routinely handled in Superior Court.
SECOND DEGREE CRIMES
As with first degree crimes, if you are convicted of a second degree crime there is a "presumption of incarceration." This means that if you are convicted (and this means that you must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt), then generally speaking, you must go to jail. Here, one faces a possible jail sentence between five (5) and ten (10) years. These charges are routinely handled in Superior Court.
THIRD DEGREE CRIMES
There is a presumption of "non-incarceration" with a Third Degree crime. This means that if you are found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge has the discretion to suspend your jail sentence. Here, if the Judge sentences you to jail, it can be between four (4) and five (5) years. These charges are routinely handled in Superior Court.
FOURTH DEGREE CRIMES
As with Third Degree crimes, there is a presumption of "non-incarceration" with Fourth Degree crimes. If you are found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and the judge sentences you to jail, you face a possible jail sentence between one (1) and one and 1/2 years. These charges are routinely handled in Superior Court.
DISORDERLY PERSONS OFFENSES
If you are found guilty of a Disorderly Persons Offense, you face potential fines between zero and $1,000, $33 in court costs and a potential maximum sentence of six (6) months per count of your conviction. Depending on the offense, you may also be facing a possible drivers license suspension. These charges are routinely handled in municipal court.
PETTY DISORDERLY PERSONS OFFENSES
If you are found guilty of a Petty Disorderly Persons offense, you face a fine between zero and $500 and $33 in court costs, as well as a sentence of up to thirty days in jail, per count.
Many municipalities have common sense rules that most people instinctively understand. They cover issues pertaining to the local fire and building codes, the need to register one's dogs, and not play music too loud when it's late at night. Most of these rules are identical throughout most of New Jersey's 565 municipalities.
That said, various municipalities have special rules embedded within their municipal codes that are rather unique to the borough or township. For example, the township of Haddonfield, NJ, prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages within town limits, even in a liquor store or restaurant. This rule, still on the books, is based on the town's 19th century religious past and involvement with the Temperance and Prohibition movements. While some local businesses are opposed to the rule, others support it, because they believe that it minimizes crime and disorderly conduct within their community.
Other towns have rules pertaining to the type of trees you can have on your property. For example, Section 171-2 of the Blairstown Municipal Code (Blairstown is located in Warren County) prohibits the planting of shade trees in a manner that obscures "light and air." The code also mandates that the trees "be properly trimmed by the owners of adjoining premises," and prohibits people from cutting or destroying the trees of adjoining premises without the consent of the owner, "the committee and occupants."
Each of New Jersey's 565 municipalities has a unique political, religious, social and economic history. These unique backgrounds have informed and given rise to a wide variety of colorful, conflicting, and at times frustrating municipal rules. I've had clients complain that things that were permissible in one place were suddenly impermissible 6 blocks away, due to the fact that township and municipal jurisdictional borders can often change rapidly within a single square mile. That said, it is good to remember that these laws reflect our tradition of self-government and that if we look at them within their proper circumstances and the context in which they were passed, they often make sense.
The key is to know the law, understand the law and have it work for you and with you, rather than against you. That's why having a good lawyer is so important.
My South Jersey Law Office regularly serves the NJ communities of Camden, Delran, Pennsauken, Willingboro, Bellmawr, Runnemede, Deptford, Glassboro, Woodbury, Westville, Gloucester Township (Blackwood, Glendora, Erial, Sicklerville, Blenheim, Lambs Terrace, Chews Landing, and Hilltop) and Washington Township, (Turnersville, Sewell, Hurffville, Grenloch, CrossKeys, Bunker Hill and Chapel Heights).
If you live in these areas, or any other area of South Jersey and are facing criminal or disorderly person charges, then contact my office immediately for a free consultation. I treat every client with extra-special care and go over the evidence and facts of their case, in-depth, so that no stone is unturned in their legal case.
Call us for quality, compassionate, and individualized representation 856-873-3730