The New Jersey Court System

New Jersey handles its criminal cases in three different courts: federal, state and municipal. Whether a case ends up in any one of these courts depends upon the nature of the law violated, the severity of the offense and the entity that created the law that was violated. Crimes are prosecuted based on violations of individual statutes of law. As such, each type of offense is governed by rules that outline maximum prison sentences, time limitations for prosecution as well as a variety of other specific terms. It is important to retain an experienced defense attorney if you or a friend or loved one has been accused of a crime. Time is of the essence so you should contact a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.

Federal Courts

Federal crimes include any offense that involves another state. For instance, transporting a minor across state lines for illicit purposes would constitute a federal crime. In addition, drug offenses that include other states or countries would constitute federal crimes. Other federal crimes include any action that violates the U.S. Criminal Code and any violation of federal immigration laws. Cases are handled in the New Jersey Federal District Courts, located in Newark, Trenton and Camden. A criminal defense attorney handling a case in Federal District Court must first be admitted to practice before that particular court.

State Courts

If a person is charged with a crime, the matter is heard in the state Superior Court. In contrast, if a person is charged with an offense, local ordinance or motor vehicle offense, the matter is heard in the Municipal Court. New Jersey has classified its crimes into four categories or levels as follows:

Fourth degree crimes are the least serious and may carry a maximum penalty of 18 months in state prison and $10,000 in fines. Examples include assaults wherein a person recklessly causes bodily injury to another with a weapon, distribution of a small amount of marijuana, theft of property or services over $200 but less than $500 and the possession of a knife.

A third degree crime carries a penalty of three to five years in state prison and up to $15,000 in fines. These offenses include aggravated assault with significant bodily injury, stalking, possession of any illegal drug other than marijuana, and theft of goods in excess of $500 but less than $75,000.

Second degree crimes have a presumption of state prison time of five to ten years with fines up to $150,000. Crimes in this category include manslaughter, death by auto, robbery without a weapon, possession of a handgun, aggravated assault with serious bodily injury, distribution of larger quantities of drugs, distribution of drugs other than small amounts of marijuana within 500 feet of certain public property, theft over $75,000, and sexual assault.  

First degree crimes have a presumption of state prison time of ten to twenty years with fines up to $200,000. Crimes in this category include aggravated manslaughter, aggravated sexual assault, robbery with a weapon and distribution of large quantities of drugs. Some first degree crimes, such as kidnapping and car jacking, carry a penalty of up to 30 years instate prison. First degree crimes such as murder have a penalty of 30 years to life in state prison. Violent offenders must serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole.

Municipal Court

These courts are found in every New Jersey community and handle offenses from traffic matters to more serious ones like DWI/DUI, possession of less than 50 grams of marijuana, possession of paraphernalia, shoplifting, resisting arrest and simple assault. Municipal courts hear matters that violate city ordinances such as public intoxication, disorderly conduct, vehicle equipment violations, and dog or hunting licensing charges. Fines are generally up to $1000, and may include county jail sentences up to 180 days and a loss of driving privileges. Along with DWI/DUI charges, municipal courts may hear violations such as careless or reckless driving, driving with a suspended license and obstruction of justice.

Juvenile Court

Juvenile matters are heard in the state Superior Court. Juvenile court in New Jersey is under the family court rather than the criminal court system since its goal is to provide rehabilitation. Juvenile cases in New Jersey differ greatly from cases involving adults. As such it is important to know your rights and to enlist the aid of an experienced juvenile court defense attorney as soon as possible. Except for cases only involving motor vehicle offenses, any juvenile under the age of 18 who commits a crime, offense or local ordinance violation will have his/her matter heard in juvenile court where a determination of delinquency is made. Juveniles are detained rather than arrested, and they must appear before a judge every three weeks to determine if further detention or other placement is warranted. There are no jury trials in juvenile court. A minor may be “waived” to adult criminal court depending upon the minor’s age, criminal history, gang affiliation and nature and severity of the crime. If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime or offense, it is important to contact an experienced defense attorney as soon as possible.

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