After being snarled in traffic, you see a clear stretch of road ahead. You step on the gas and then hear a siren.
Maybe you just pay the fine and cringe when the next insurance bill comes in. But you might want to think twice about that strategy, because you are getting two points on your drivers license for going 1 to 14 miles per hour over the speed limit, four points for going 15 to 29 mph over the limit, and five points for 30 mph. (Tailgating gets you five points.)
Particularly if you have two violations in two years, consider whether you should go to court and tell the prosecutor you want to plea bargain. If you are lucky, your negotiation could cut the points that might eventually cause you to get your license suspended.
"If you already have points on your driving record, and you are charged with a new offense, you should know your legal rights," says Gerald Siegel of Siegel & Siegel at Princeton Meadows Office Center.
Notify the municipal court that you plan to appeal. Everyone has the right to speak with the prosecutor, but only on the court date, and your call will not be taken at the part-time prosecutor’s private law office.
You don’t necessarily have to bring a lawyer, but if you do, your wait will be shorter. "By a Supreme Court rule the court has to take the cases with the attorneys first," says Siegel, "because the attorney may have more than one case a day in a different court."
After the prosecutor speaks with the attorneys, the rest of the defendants form a line. If you wait long enough you will get your chance. The seriousness of the charge will be measured against the potential penalty and is sensitive to the driver’s past contact with the criminal justice system. Rarely will the motive for speeding make any difference, says Siegel, unless it is to help a loved one.
"In negotiating the resolution of a case, the prosecution and the courts are concerned about your driving record in the last three years," says Siegel. "If you have a bad driving record and you are asking for leniency based on the fact that you need your license, the judge will not be impressed."
Don’t suggest the police have a quota, warns Siegel. "To negotiate by insult is a failing strategy."
In court, don’t try to question the officer’s observational skills, he warns. For that, you do need an attorney. "Lawyers have the skill and position to express the position of a lay person in a convincing way."
Sometimes the prosecutor will let you plead guilty to a different charge, such as "unsafe driving" or "obstructing traffic" instead of speeding, so you would pay a bigger fine but get fewer points. (One pitfall is that for the first two times you are charged with unsafe driving, you get no points. The third time, you get four points).
Okay, your strategy didn’t work. You have six points. Now the state levies a $150 per year surcharge, plus $25 per year for each additional point. That is in addition to the increase you can expect from your auto insurance policy.
All is not lost. You can take two points off your record by attending an approved defensive driving program. You pay $100 plus the cost of the program.If you take that program and you have a violation-free record for one year, you get another point subtracted.
But if you continue to rack up points, 12 or more points in two years or less, expect to get a suspension notice from the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (www.state.nj.us/mvc). You have the right to a hearing before an administrative law judge. No attorney is needed for this hearing.
An excellent handbook, published in 2003 by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, is "Getting Back on the Road: A Manual for Addressing Driver’s License Suspension in New Jersey," also at www.njisj.org. For each of eight suspension categories, ranging from failure to pay parking tickets to drunk driving, it tells what to do.
Be up front about your purpose, says this manual. "Most of the people you’ll encounter on the phone, at the DMV, and in New Jersey’s municipal courts are willing to help and are sympathetic to the difficulty of getting a suspended license restored."
How do you know how many points you have? Call 609-292-6500 or visit the DMV office to request the Driver History Abstract. For details see www.state.nj.us/mvc.
If your license is suspended, be very careful when you get it back. Habitual offenders lose their licenses for up to three years.