Our Jersey City Criminal Defense Attorney Explains Courts That Handle Criminal Cases in NJ
Anyone who has been charged with a crime in New Jersey needs to take the charges very seriously because the consequences of a conviction could be anywhere from inconvenient to catastrophic. In the worst cases, a person convicted of a first degree crime may be sentenced to a lengthy term of incarceration in prison. The exact consequences, however, can vary a great deal, depending on the specific charges and the court in which the case is heard. In fact, there are many different types of courts that deal with criminal cases and their offshoots, including:
- Municipal courts
- Superior courts
- Family courts
- Juvenile courts
- Appellate courts
While all of these courts are part of the same state judiciary, the processes in each court are distinct in many important ways. Note, that your case may head to District court as well if you are charged with a federal crime.
Types of New Jersey Courts That Deal With Criminal Cases
Courts in Local Municipalities
Numerous criminal cases in New Jersey are handled in the municipal courts, and most defendants in criminal cases have their cases heard in a local municipal court. Municipal courts have jurisdiction over minor criminal offenses (classified as disorderly persons offenses or petty disorderly persons offenses), as well as traffic offenses & parking tickets, DWI offenses, municipal ordinance violations, and fish & gaming violations. If you are charged with, or ticketed for, one of these types of offenses in the city or town where you live or are present in at the time, that is where your case will be adjudicated, since each municipality in New Jersey has a municipal court. Note: some smaller municipalities in NJ share a single municipal court.
When an individual is arrested for or charged with a low-level criminal offense such as shoplifting, simple assault, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, or harassment, they will usually be required to make an appearance in front of the judge to hear the formal charges. If the accused person was not placed under arrest, it is likely that a municipal complaint may be filed in the municipal court located in the city or town where the offense allegedly occurred. The accused individual will then typically receive a summons from the police officer or receive one in the mail, and the “court appearance required” box on the form will be checked. This means that you will need to show up to court for your scheduled date. Failing to appear for a required court date may result in suspension of your driver’s license and a bench warrant for your arrest.
Case Process When You Have Be Charged With a Lower Level Criminal or Traffic Offense
At your initial court appearance, you will have an opportunity to enter a plea of either “guilty” or “not guilty.” If you plead guilty to the charges, the judge may immediately proceed to the sentencing phase and impose penalties. If you plead not guilty, the court will then set a trial date. You may also request a postponement if you need time to obtain legal representation by an attorney you hire or by a public defender provided to you by the state. Additionally, there is usually a period of time before trial during which defendants in municipal court cases may have an opportunity to reach a plea agreement with the prosecutor.
Depending on the circumstances of your case, it’s possible that the local prosecutor may decide to reduce the charges against you in exchange for a guilty plea, or they may even opt to drop the charges altogether if they determine that the evidence isn’t strong enough to secure a conviction at trial. If a plea deal is reached in your case, the judge will ultimately have to approve the agreement. If you have no prior record, diversionary programs like conditional dismissal and conditional discharge may also be a possibility, allowing you to get the charges dismissed and maintain a clean criminal record by complying with court-ordered conditions during a probationary term.
Assuming your municipal court case goes to trial, it will be decided by the municipal court judge. There are no jury trials at the municipal court level, only bench trials. The trial will follow a standard procedure, with both sides making their opening arguments, questioning witnesses, and introducing evidence. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge will issue a ruling.
What You Could Face if Convicted in Municipal Court
If you are convicted of the charges, the judge will impose a sentence. However, the judge will be limited to a certain range of penalties, depending on the classification of the charge:
- Disorderly Persons Charge: up to 6 months in jail
- Petty Disorderly Persons Charge: up to 30 days in jail
The judge can also impose monetary fines, suspend your driver’s license, and order you to perform community service, among other possible penalties.
Criminal Cases in Superior Courts
Cases in which a person is charged with a more serious criminal offense are handled in the Superior Court, Criminal Division. There is a Superior Court in each county New Jersey that deals with the felony criminal cases in that county typically. Sometimes, multiple charges against a defendant in different counties may result in the case being consolidated and sent to one county to be adjudicated. Some of the most common offenses heard in superior court include the following:
- Aggravated Assault
- Auto Theft
- Sexual Assault
- Terroristic Threats
- Unlawful Possession of a Weapon
- Drug Distribution
Like disorderly persons charges, these complaints are initially filed in the local municipality before being sent to the county prosecutor at the superior court located in the county where the offense allegedly happened. In order for the prosecutor to move forward with the charges, they will first need to secure an indictment from a grand jury – which is why offenses giving rise to these types of charges are classified as “indictable offenses.” If the grand jury declines to issue an indictment, then the county prosecutor can either drop the case or reduce the charges and send the case back to the municipal prosecutor for prosecution at the municipal court level. If the grand jury issues an indictment, however, then the case is scheduled for trial in superior court. Assuming no plea deal with the prosecution is reached before the scheduled date, the case will proceed to trial.
What Happens at a Superior Court Trial?
As the defendant in superior court, you will usually have a jury trial. The trial will begin with opening arguments from both sides. Since the burden of proof will be on the prosecution to establish all the elements of the charge and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you committed the charged offense, the prosecutor will need to make its case against you. They will likely call witnesses and present evidence to prove their case. You will then have an opportunity to rebut these arguments by calling witnesses and presenting evidence in your defense. You may also decide to testify, but you are not legally required to testify in your own criminal case.
At the conclusion of the trial, the jury will usually render a decision and find you either guilty or not guilty. If you are found guilty, the judge may then impose a sentence. At the superior court level, the range of penalties is much higher than the range of penalties for municipal court charges because criminal charges in superior court are classified as felonies. The most serious penalty that can be handed down by the judge is prison time, and the length of any prison sentence is typically determined by the degree of the charge:
- First Degree Crime: 10-20 years in prison
- Second Degree Crime: 5-10 years in prison
- Third Degree Crime: 3-5 years in prison
- Fourth Degree Crime: up to 18 months in prison
Also, it is important to keep in mind that some crimes have a presumption of incarceration, which means that the judge must impose a prison sentence if the defendant is convicted or pleads guilty to certain charges. Generally speaking, if you are convicted of a first degree or second degree offense, it is very likely that you will have to serve time in prison. Also of note, some first degree crimes carry extended sentences that may go well beyond the 20-year end of the range for normal crimes of the first degree. Kidnapping, carjacking, and homicide are a few examples. On top of that, some crimes carry mandatory minimum prison terms based on laws like the No Early Release Act (NERA) and the Graves Act for firearms related offenses.
Criminal Related Cases in Family Courts
The Superior Court, Family Division, or Family Court, handles several different types of cases, including criminal-adjacent matters such as domestic violence, juvenile offenses, and child abuse. The Family Division also handles divorce, adoption, and child support. If your case goes to the Family Division, it will be heard and decided by a judge, not a jury. That’s because these are technically civil matters, not criminal matters, and there is no right to a jury trial in most of these cases. The process in Family Court is similar to the process in other court. The case will be scheduled for trial, at which both sides will be allowed to present evidence, call witnesses, etc. Depending on the type of case, the outcome could involve the imposition of a permanent restraining order for domestic violence, sentencing to time in a juvenile detention center for juvenile charges, or loss of custody of your child for child abuse or neglect.
What Happens for Juvenile Delinquency Matters Heard in the Family Division of the Superior Court
One of the subsets of cases handled by the Family Division is juvenile offenses. In fact, New Jersey juvenile court is technically a family court that deals with allegations of juvenile delinquency by minors under the age of 18. While the most serious offenses are eligible for waiver to adult criminal court, most juvenile cases remain in the Family Court. Some of the most common juvenile offenses in NJ include: Simple Assault, Shoplifting, Vandalism, Trespassing, and Underage Drinking.
If your son or daughter has been charged with a particularly severe juvenile crime, there will first be a detention hearing to determine whether they should be held in detention while awaiting resolution of the charges. The detention hearing is supposed to occur within 24 hours of arrest and/or charges being filed. In the weeks that follow, there will be review hearings to determine whether the juvenile should continue to be held in a detention center or whether the juvenile should be released.
The adjudicator hearing will be heard by a judge, and that judge will issue a ruling on whether the juvenile is considered “delinquent” with respect to the charges. If a ruling of delinquency is returned, then the case will be scheduled for a disposition hearing at which the judge will impose punishment. Depending on the nature of the offense and the circumstances of the case, the judge could order the juvenile offender to be incarcerated in a secure facility with the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC). Other common penalties in New Jersey juvenile cases include probation, community service, alcohol and drug counseling, and financial restitution to the victim.
Appellate Courts for Criminal Appeals
If you are convicted in a criminal court in New Jersey and disagree with that result, you will have 20 days from the date of conviction to file an appeal with an appellate court. Appellate courts are tasked with reviewing lower court decisions and making sure that the decisions were made in accordance with the law. The appellate review process may involve interpreting relevant criminal statutes, or even the NJ Constitution or U.S. Constitution.
The main appellate courts in New Jersey are in the Appellate Division of Superior Court. If you are convicted in municipal or superior court and wish to contest the ruling or the sentence in your case, you would probably need to file an appeal in the Appellate Division. A panel of either two or three judges would then hear the appeal as presented by your attorney. Some of the reasons for filing an appeal and getting the appellate judges to overturn the original verdict include the following:
- Legal Error: Although your attorney cannot present new evidence during the appellate process to prove your innocence, they can argue that there was a legal error during the original trial that should invalidate the outcome. There is a distinction between an error of law and an error of fact, with only the former serving as justification for an appeal. For example, if the judge provided improper jury instructions before a verdict was rendered, or if the judge failed to exclude evidence that should have been ruled inadmissible at trial, then the appeal may be successful.
- Judicial Misconduct: If the judge who decided the original case was not impartial due to obvious bias or a conflict of interest, then it may be possible to get the conviction overturned. The same is true for misconduct by a member of the jury.
- Ineffective Legal Counsel: There is a bare minimum standard that must be met by a defense attorney in a criminal matter. If your attorney failed to meet that standard and therefore did not provide you with an adequate defense against the criminal charges, then it’s possible that the appellate court will overturn the conviction.
Importantly, there is no new evidence allowed during the appeals process because the appeal is not supposed to be a new trial. At the appeal, your attorney would need to answer questions from the judges and persuade them that the original case was wrongly decided based on the law.
When You Want to Appeal an Appellate Division Decision
If you believe that the Appellate Division wrongly decided your initial appeal, you may be able to file another appeal with the New Jersey Supreme Court. Keep in mind that the NJ Supreme Court does not select many cases to review, so there is no guarantee that they will hear your appeal. The process followed by the state supreme court is similar to the process followed by other appeals courts in that no new evidence can be introduced, and the appeal will be decided entirely on the basis of whether the law was properly followed and correctly applied by the lower courts.
Contact a Criminal Lawyer With Local Office in Jersey City if You Have Questions About a Court Case.
You can reach the criminal defense attorneys at William Proetta Criminal Law anytime if you would like to speak with a lawyer regarding your specific criminal matter. Phones are answered 24/7 at (201) 793-8018 or contact us online for a free consultation.