In February, the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Practice proposed a series of revisions intended to update the current municipal court proceedings to more closely resemble those of the state supreme and superior criminal courts. Criminal attorneys in New Jersey say that the revisions, if accepted by the state supreme court, would unify the processes of the municipal and superior courts.
The committee has proposed several revisions, one of which seeks to give defense lawyers access to police notes taken during a criminal investigation. This proposal amends Rule 7:7-7 to include not only police reports, but “any and all reports and notes of law enforcement officers related to the incident.” These notes, which are usually destroyed after the official police report is presented, can be instrumental to a case. The new rules stipulate that the destruction of these notes could open the door to adverse interference charges in favor of the defendant.
The revisions would also provide both defense and prosecution access to the birthdates of anyone on the potential witness list. New Jersey criminal attorneys can use birthdates to research a witness’s background, including criminal history, and make judgments on credibility, the relationship to the defendant, and other factors. The committee introduced this change after discovering that the Superior Court has required the disclosure of witnesses’ birthdates since 2007.
Other rule changes listed in the committee’s proposal are aimed at expanding and formalizing the powers of municipal court judges. Under the new rules, municipal judges would be granted the power to issue restraining orders over the phone. Additionally, municipal courts could issue protective orders for “confidential information recognized by law” as well as confidential relationships. These changes would add a measure of protection to domestic violence and sexual assault victims who file restraining orders—the issuance of an order by phone shields the victims from a face-to-face confrontation with an attacker. The updated procedure does not require that a municipal judge determine an emergency that prevents the order from being issued in person.
The committee has also recommended relaxing the rules governing the plea-by-mail program for defendants. The proposal advocates the removal of the requirement to demonstrate that appearing in court “constitute[s] an undue hardship such as illness, physical incapacity, substantial distance to travel, or incarceration.” If this requirement is abolished, New Jersey criminal lawyers say that municipal courts may experience a welcome break in heavy traffic, as more defendants can file a plea through the mail.
Supporters of the proposed updates hope that change in the municipal courts will bring about a more efficient and just legal system in New Jersey. Criminal laws already include either the same or very similar rules for the state superior courts, and enacting these rules at the municipal level may help to establish continuity throughout the courts. The state Supreme Court is set to rule on the proposal later this year.
The criminal lawyers at Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, represent anyone charged with a crime in the state of New Jersey, and have experience in the municipal, district, superior and supreme courts.