Domestic Violence, Traffic Violations, And COVID-19
What Is Happening, As Far As The Courts In Your Area, And When Do You Expect Them To Reopen?
The municipal courts have essentially been shut down, as far as in-person appearances are concerned. That started with an order from our Chief Justice, Stuart Rabner, issued on Saturday, March 14th. We have had a few remote court appearances, post-conviction relief petitions, and case management conferences. We’ve had no substantive motions requiring testimony. It looks like in-person court appearances may be starting in July or August, but there is no official announcement yet. We are doing as much as we can by conference call and virtual court appearances via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and similar platforms. We are also giving seminars using Zoom and having a number of different happy hours, just so that everyone can keep acquainted. As far as new business goes, things have been very slow.
In the entire state of New Jersey, only 58 DWI tickets were written in the month of April–about three percent of the normal rate. Domestic violence does seem to be on the rise and as a result, temporary restraining orders are being issued. Sometimes, the cases are able to resolve without an in-person appearance. Courts are trying to do trials on domestic violence matters via Zoom, but most attorneys object to that because Zoom doesn’t lend itself to confronting witnesses or seeing what is going on outside of the frame. Nonetheless, many judges are insisting that final restraining order [“FRO”] hearings proceed virtually. This will lead to many appeals. In my DWI trials, there have been some requests to have them via Zoom, but I have objected because I like to be able to see what is going on in the entire courtroom and not just within the frame on my computer screen.
If Someone Is Facing Charges For A New Crime Post Or During The COVID-19 Shut Down, What Are The Best Ways To Connect With Your Office? Can I Still Hire You? Should I Wait To Hire An Attorney Until Things Reopen?
My office has remained open throughout this crisis. We have been maintaining close contact with our clients and resolving some cases using a process called Plea-by-Mail, where the client signs a certification or affidavit. We have been able to resolve some cases by plea agreement, and that is going to ease the burden when we get back in court.
Do You Fear That Plea Deals Are Going To Be Rushed When Court Resumes? How Would You Advise Your Clients?
On more minor offenses, this current situation has actually enhanced dispositions because prosecutors seem to be more willing to dismiss or give favorable downgrades. We are resolving a lot of minor tickets. As to resolving more serious cases, I have not really seen much movement other than case management. Prosecutors just do not seem to be very willing to deal with cases while we are locked down.
In New Jersey, we have what is called bail reform. On certain charges, when a person is arrested, they must go to jail for at least a day before they appear in front of a judge. The judge will assess whether they are a risk to society and what conditions would be necessary to assure their appearance at future court appearances. People who are serving sentences and are eligible for parole are being released early. Jails have become hot beds for the spread of COVID-19 due to the close quarters and interpersonal contact. Most jails are on lockdown, meaning that inmates are usually confined to their cells for 23 hours per day. They are given an hour per day to do basic things, like shower and make phone calls. These are extraordinary conditions that probably would not be tolerated but for the fact that we have this virus out there. Jails have been trying to reduce their populations by releasing non-violent offenders and avoiding bringing new people in.
One of the ironies is that prosecutors have been very reluctant to agree to the release of people who have not been convicted and are just being held pending trial. It seems very unfair that those who are presumed innocent seem to be treated more harshly than those who have already been convicted.
Does Your Firm Take On Any Domestic Violence Defense Cases Or Are You Sticking With DWI And Traffic Related Offenses?
I have always handled domestic violence [“DV”] cases. These cases generally involve conduct that is classified as an offense or a crime. The domestic violence court deals with cases where there should be restraints between the two people involved. DV proceedings are very different from criminal proceedings. For example, there is no discovery practice except, other than to the extent that the people may agree or the judge may order on a particular case. There have been very few final restraining order [“FRO”] hearings because we cannot have in-person hearings, although this may change given directions from the Administrative Office of the Courts [“AOC”] to conduct the4m virtually. A person accused of domestic violence will have to scramble to find alternative housing and basically survive until the courts reopen.
Regarding Any Traffic Related Matters That Your Firm Handles, Is There Anything Clients Should Know About The Ongoing Situation?
Right now, if the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission [“MVC”] assesses points for a traffic violation, MVC may suspend that person’s driving privilege administratively–outside of court. People with traffic violations should plead not guilty and hire attorneys. Hiring attorneys at this time will expedite a favorable disposition of the case. Otherwise, it may be hanging on for months. Prosecutors are reaching out to a lot of “pro se” defendants–i.e., people representing themselves. But there is a danger in this for the pro se defendant. The prosecutor may not offer the best deal available or one that the person doesn’t really understand.
Is There Any Exception Right Now For People Who Were Sentenced To Take DWI Courses? Are They Able To Complete Those Courses Online?
The DWI courses are not being given online at this time. However, the Intoxicated Driver Resource Center [“IDRC”]. The agency responsible for these courses, recently issued emergency regulations providing for on-line course in combination with home confinement for either the two six-hour sessions required for first offenders and the 48-hour sessions required for second or subsequent offenders. While these courses are not yet being given, no one is being held in non-compliance for failure to take the courses while this crisis is going on.
One problem area that has arisen during the shutdown deals with people who plead guilty while the courts and MVC are locked down. In New Jersey, for most first offenders, there is an indefinite period of revocation during which the person would have to do two things: get an interlock installed and obtain a license from MVC with the imprint stating “Interlock Required” embossed on the license. While MVC will remain closed until mid-June, interlock installation companies remain open as essential businesses. Because of the MVC shutdown, people cannot terminate that indefinite revocation. However, an MVC spokesman has stated that, if those convicted of a first offense DWI pay a $100 restoration fee and $100 countermeasures fee, provide proof of interlock installation, and mail these to MVC, MVC will give credit from the date of the postmark on the letter. However, for the two-to-three-week time needed to process these restoration applications, the person’s driving privilege will appear as revoked on MVC computers, potentially leading to unwarranted but totally defensible charges of driving without an interlock or driving with a revoked driving privilege. For anyone who is facing such consequences now, I am just adjourning their cases until the courts open for in-person proceedings so we can deal with the cases in a more effective way.
This is a very fluid situation and, a lot of times, the directives are coming out literally at the last minute. We will just have to pay close attention.
For more information on Domestic Violence and Traffic Violations, your free 20 min phone consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you are seeking by calling (732) 218-9090 today.
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