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What Happens If You Don't Pay Traffic Court Fines and Penalties?

As a general rule of traffic court, all fines and penalties levied by the court are due and payable that day.  However, defendants are often given time to pay in a pre-approved payment plan.  But what happens if you don't pay?  What can the court do to you?  Well, according to changes made at the beginning of this year, plenty.

First of all, you must be "in default" for the consequences to kick in.  According to a March 2, 2010, directive from the Administrative Office of the Courts, this happens a) if your driver's license has been suspended after a failure to pay; or (b) if a warrant has been issued for your arrest after a failure to pay.  Second. assuming this is the case, then what?  Well, according to New Jersey law (N.J.S.A. 2B:12-23.1), the court may:

  1. reduce the penalty, suspend the penalty, or modify the installment plan;
  2. order that credit be given against the amount owed for each day of confinement, if the court finds that the person has served jail time for the default;
  3. revoke any unpaid portion of the penalty, if the court finds that the circumstances that warranted the imposition have changed or that it would be unjust to require payment;
  4. order the person to perform community service in lieu of payment of the penalty; or
  5. impose any other alternative permitted by law in lieu of payment of the penalty.

This same statute as changed this year defines the "penalty" as being "any fine, statutorily-mandated assessment, surcharge or other financial penalty imposed by a municipal court, except restitution or a surcharge assessed" for an Unsafe Operation ("no point ticket") offense, which is $250.  Remember, penalties are just that, punishment.  It is not a debt.  Therefore the court can convert a penalty into jail time if it sees fit!  What is worse, this recent change in the law has expanded the definition of penalty beyond just fines; they now include any financial obligation except restitution or a surcharge for a no-point ticket.  So on go the court costs (usually about $33 per offense), Safe Neighborhood Assessments, Violent Crime Compensation Board payments, etc.  If you plead guilty to a traffic offense, take it seriously!  If you fall behind in payments, be proactive and contact the court to modify the plan.  Do not wait for an incident of default to do something; the consequences could be most unpleasant.

Steven J. Richardson
Bankruptcy, Collections, Student Loan, DUI and Traffic Court attorney in Woodbury, NJ.