Yesterday, Gov. Christie signed into law an assembly bill that creates for the first time a diversionary program for certain first offenders in municipal court. What does this mean? Well, it means that first offenders that have been charged with a disorderly or petty disorderly persons offense (like shoplifting, simple assault, or disorderly conduct) can enter conditional pleas of guilty and later receive a dismissal of their charges, thus avoiding a criminal record.
Dismissal of the charge is not automatic. The person must comply with the orders of the court, pay a $75 fee, and commit no new offenses. In addition, the program does not apply to drug offenses (for which a conditional discharge may be available), traffic tickets, or local ordinance violations.
The Good News
This program is for people who are ordinarily law abiding citizens, but get into minor trouble or make a stupid mistake. It allows them to treat the charge as a wake-up call to get back on the straight and narrow. For this reason, a person may use the program only once and will be precluded from applying for Pretrial Intervention or a conditional discharge (other programs for first offenders) in the future.
On top of that, once the charges are dismissed, you can seek to have the arrest record expunged, so that there would be no official trace of the incident (other than a notation that you made use of the diversionary program).
The Bad News
The bad news is, if you have already been charged, this law will not help you. It does not go into effect January 7 of next year and will apply to cases that occur on or after that date. The good news is that it provides an alternative for charges like shoplifting. In the past, judges would allow such a charge to be downgraded to a municipal ordinance, but the state has since precluded that practice.
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