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Open Government Advocacy Project:
Plea Bargains in Municipal. Court

Issue Detail:

On August 6, 2011, the New Jersey Libertarian Party contacted Senator Christopher Bateman seeking enactment of a statutory offense designed to be the one to which municipal courts plea-bargain other statutory offenses. The letter to Senator Bateman is on-line here: Such a statute, in our view, would be preferable to the current, unlawful practice, used in many courts, of downgrading statutory offenses to municipal ordinance violations, a practice that has been ruled improper by the state Attorney General\'s office in 1998. See the Attorney General\'s memo here: There are two basic problems with the current practice. First, since ordinance violations are not listed on the criminal history records maintained by the State, there is no way for a judge to know whether a defendant standing before the court with a purportedly clean record is really a first offender or has had statutory charges downgraded to ordinance violations one or more times in the past. Unrecorded plea bargains to municipal ordinances undermine the criminal justice system\'s practice of showing leniency toward first offenders while meting out more severe penalties to repeat offenders. Second, not everyone gets their statutory offenses plea bargained to an unrecorded ordinance violation. Some defendants either plead guilty or are found guilty of the statutory offense. In one of the cases I examined, a Manville defendant was charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana which was pled down to a municipal ordinance violation and resulted in a $350 fine and $33 costs. (Summons No. 1811-S-2011-000090). From a Libertarian\'s perspective, drug prohibition laws shouldn\'t exist, so, I suppose that this is a good outcome. But, it\'s not right if other defendants--perhaps ones who do not have the \"right\" defense lawyer or who are in a disfavored political party or social class--plead guilty or are found guilty of the statutory offenses and subjected to the severe, life-changing statutory penalties. People who commit \"real\" crimes (i.e. those with an identifiable victim, such as assault, forgery, etc.) should be subject to progressively severe criminal penalties according to the number of times they re-offend. And, people who commit victimless crimes (i.e. drug, prostitution, gambling and other offenses where \"society\" is the purported victim) shouldn\'t be prosecuted at all, but as long as some are being prosecuted, it shouldn\'t be permitted for others to escape the harsh penalties based on factors that should be irrelevant to prosecutors and judges. (Also, perhaps if the sons and daughters of politicians and other members of the political and law enforcement classes were subjected to the same life-changing penalties that the rest of us are, the laws against these victimless crimes would promptly be amended.) Nobody wants to see first offenders who make a mistake saddled with a criminal record. We envision that the statutory offense suggested in our letter to Senator Bateman would allow these one-time offenders to enjoy an automatic expungement of the conviction after a period in which no repeat violations occur. Perhaps a record of the conviction might be shielded from prospective employers or schools during those five years in order to aid in the defendant\'s rehabilitation. These are matters for the legislature to work out. But, the current practice of downgrading to preempted municipal ordinance violations totally lacks any design or accountability, disserves the criminal justice process and allows for plea bargains that can either be granted or withheld at a prosecutor\'s or judge\'s whim. John Paff, Chairman New Jersey Libertarian Party\'s Preempted Ordinance Repeal Project




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New Jersey Libertarian Party Open Government Advocacy Project: Plea Bargains in Municipal. Court. August 09, 2011.
URL: http://ogtf.lpcnj.org/2011220TV/
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