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Can a Careless Driving Ticket Land You in Jail?


By Prev Info - February 28, 2022

 Can a Careless Driving Ticket Land You in Jail?


Ordinarily, a careless driving ticket issued after a car accident does not result in jail time. However, a jail sentence is possible where the judge finds that the accident involved certain additional factors.




In State v. Palma, the defendant struck a pedestrian with her SUV while making a turn. The pedestrian became pinned between the SUV’s undercarriage and the pavement. The defendant, unaware that she had hit or was dragging the pedestrian, continued driving.  After being alerted by another driver of the situation, the defendant stopped and emergency personnel responded. The pedestrian died two months later of her injuries.


The defendant was issued motor vehicle tickets for, among other things, careless driving. The defendant eventually pled guilty to careless driving, and the judge’s sentence included fifteen days in jail to be served on the weekends. Although not criminally charged, defendant, as a person convicted of the motor vehicle infraction of careless driving, was subject to a fine and/or a maximum of fifteen days in prison under N.J.S.A. 39:4-104. The defendant appealed her sentence all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which reversed the jail term.


The Supreme Court decided that in order to put someone in jail for careless driving, a judge must consider additional factors such as the defendant’s driving record and whether his or her attitude indicates another infraction is likely. The judge not only has to consider these factors, but if he or she wants to put a defendant in jail, the judge must also specifically explain why jail time is justified.


Drivers May Get More Than a Ticket If Their Passengers Don’t Click It


It has long been the law in New Jersey that a driver must ensure that his or her pasengers “buckle up.” Thanks to a recent decision by our state’s Supreme Court, that law may now serve as the basis for a conviction of a second degree crime in the right (or wrong) case.


In August of 2007, 18-year-0ld Kirby Lenihan was driving after midnight on a rainy night, with her friend in the passenger seat. Apparently under the influence of substances related to “huffing” aerosols, Ms. Lenihan veered off the road at an admittedly high rate of speed and crashed, causing severe injurites to herself and to her 16-year-0ld passenger. Ms. Lenihan survived the crash. Sadly, her passenger did not.


Ms. Lenihan was indicted for, among other things, knowingly violating any law “intended to protect the public safety” and recklessly causing serious bodily injury or death. The law Ms. Lenihan was alleged to have knowingly violated was the Mandatory Seat Belt law, which required her to ensure that her pasenger was buckled up. Since the passenger died, Ms. Lenihan faced a possible second degree crime charge, carrying a sentence of 5-10 years.


Ms. Lenihan argued that the seat belt law was not geared toward protecting the public at large, such as a fire/buidling code or pollution law might be. Further, she argued that the statute was unconstitutionally vague, since she could not have known that violating a minor traffic law could result in a ten-year custodial prison sentence.


Our courts at all three levels, including the Supreme Court, upheld the conviction, rejecting all of Ms. Lenihan’s arguments.


Thanks to a plea, Ms. Lenihan will only spend 180 days in county jail, followed by three years of supervised probation. However, her tale is cautionary. If the seat belt law is a predicate offense, why not the law regarding speed limits? What about yielding the right of way? Even if Ms. Lenihan hadn’t been “huffing,” might she have been tried and convicted just because she admited to speeding?


Eager prosecutors may say these should all be predicate offenses. So be safe out there.  And buckle up.






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