New Jersey Municipal Court Judge’s are authorized under statute to suspend the license of a driver for any “willful” violation. This week, the New Jersey Supreme Court set forth new guidelines for Municipal Court Judges to follow in imposing such sentences for reckless driving.
In State v. Moran, A-55-09, put forth certain factors that should be met by Municipal Court Judges that aim to guarantee that license suspensions are imposed fairly. The new rule is that municipal court judges must make a finding that the defendant’s intent was “willful” and also that the driver acted in a “deliberate” manner in driving recklessly.
These findings must be made on the record to assist review by higher courts on appeal.
In Moran, who was represented by Freehold’s Donald Lomurro, was convicted in Aberdeen Township of reckless driving in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:4-96. Moran was accused of improperly passing another vehicle in a left-turn lane. After being convicted, the municipal court judge suspended the defendant’s license for 45 days under N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 for driving in a “willful and wanton [manner] in violation of the rights and safety of others and [her]self” and also due to her emotional, obstreperous, and disruptive demeanor in court.
The judge’s ruling was affirmed in the Law Division and in the Appellate Division. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification and subsequently reversed the defendant’s license suspension. Judge Albin wrote the opinion for the court. He noted that that the license-suspension provision of N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 was not “hidden” and that all drivers are presumed to know the law.
However, the Supreme Court ultimately held that there should be clear guidelines to ensure uniformity and fairness. Specifically, the guidelines are:
- The nature and circumstances of the defendant’s conduct, including whether the conduct posed a high risk of danger to the public or whether it caused physical or property damage.
- The defendant’s driving record, including his or her age and how long the defendant has had a license and the frequency of prior infractions.
- Whether the defendant has been free of infractions for a substantial period of time.
- Whether the defendant’s character and attitude indicates that he or she is likely or unlikely to commit another offense.
- Whether a license suspension would impose an excessive hardship.
- The need for personal deterrence.
“No one would suggest that a court can take away one’s driving privileges on a whim or capriciously,” Albin said. “Random and unpredictable sentencing is anathema to notions of due process.”