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Reckless Driving in New Jersey (N.J.S.A. 39:4-96)

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Last updated 
December 7, 2022

Reckless driving is one of the most serious traffic offenses one can commit in New Jersey. In addition to jail time, a person can face serious fines and points. Like many serious traffic offenses in New Jersey, reckless driving can also have a devastating impact on one’s auto insurance rates. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce the impact of a reckless driving ticket in New Jersey.

What Are the Penalties for Reckless Driving in NJ?

  • Jail time: Reckless driving in NJ (39:4-96) carries a potential sentence of up to 60 days in county or municipal jail upon conviction for a first offense. A second offense can result in up to 3 months in jail.
  • Points: The NJ Motor Vehicle Commission imposes 5 points on one’s license for reckless driving. This is only one point below the threshold (6 points) to be hit with a state surcharge.
  • Fine: A first conviction for reckless driving carries a fine of $50 to $200. A second or subsequent offense carries a fine of $100 to $500.
  • Court costs: New Jersey courts impose a fee of $33 for those charged with reckless driving.
  • Surcharge: Any driver in New Jersey who receives 6 or more points on their license must pay a state surcharge. This surcharge costs $150 for the first six points and $25 per point over six. This amount can be charged annually for three years!
  • Auto insurance increase: Reckless driving convictions can cause major increases in insurance premiums. Some drivers have found their rates to rise as much as 50%. It is also possible to be dropped by one’s insurer altogether or forced into a high-risk plan.

What is Reckless Driving in New Jersey?

N.J.S.A. 39:4-96 defines reckless driving as driving “heedlessly, in willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others, in a manner so as to endanger, or be likely to endanger, a person or property…” This is intentionally vague and can include a wide variety of driving behaviors, such as speeding, driving while intoxicated, swerving in and out of lanes, driving the wrong way on a highway, and striking or nearly striking pedestrians.

An officer has discretion as to when a driver has violated a simple traffic law and when he/she is driving recklessly. The two key factors involved in convicting a person of reckless driving are 1. Intent and 2. Endangerment of others. If the court can prove that both factors were part of a driver’s actions, then he/she can be convicted of reckless driving.

The Difference Between Careless Driving and Reckless Driving in NJ

Careless driving (N.J.S.A. 39:4-97) is often confused with reckless driving in New Jersey. However, they are distinct violations with very different penalties. Careless driving is far less serious than reckless driving, although its penalties are significant in their own right.

The core difference between them is one of intent. Careless driving means a person has been operating a vehicle “without due caution and circumspection”; in other words, the person is not willfully putting others at risk, but rather not taking specific precautions needed to ensure the safety of others. By contrast, a reckless driver is operating “in willful or wanton disregard” of the safety of others.  

Is Unsafe Driving the Same as Reckless Driving or Careless Driving?

No. Unsafe driving is a no-point offense that applies in many circumstances similar to careless driving. It is common for drivers to negotiate to reduce a careless driving ticket to an unsafe driving ticket. This would be hard to do for a driver charged with reckless driving unless the facts of the case work strongly in the driver’s favor.

Defenses for Reckless Driving in New Jersey

A reckless driving charge can be reduced or dismissed if a driver or his/her attorney can disprove or prevent the prosecution from establishing the two key facts mentioned above: that the driver’s actions were detrimental to the rights and safety of others and that he/she was acting in willful disregard for the safety and/or rights of others.

For example, in State v Francis, the defendant was charged with two counts of reckless driving in multiple townships. The court noted that one of the counts of reckless driving involved the driver running through two stop signs. It was ruled that simply running two stop signs was not enough to constitute reckless driving. By itself, running a stop sign is not an inherent sign of willfully disregarding the safety of others. As such, one of the charges was amended to a stop sign violation.

In State v Palma, a driver struck a pedestrian after making a left turn. However, the driver seemed unaware of the impact and only stopped after another motorist informed her of the accident. This clearly established the criteria that another’s safety had been put at risk (the pedestrian later died of the injuries). However, the defendant voluntarily submitted to a blood test, which showed no sign of drugs or alcohol. A search of the defendant’s phone indicated she had not been using it while operating the vehicle. Nor was there any evidence that the driver had committed any kind of traffic violation leading up to the point of impact. There was no evidence that the driver had done anything intentionally that resulted in the impact—it was purely an accident. Therefore, the prosecution was unable to prove that she had driven recklessly. However, given that someone was harmed (killed) and the driver was responsible for said harm, the charge was amended to careless driving.

Can I Lose My License for Reckless Driving?

Yes. The statute for reckless driving does not specifically define a license suspension or revocation as a penalty for the offense. However, N.J.S.A. 39:5-31 authorizes judges to revoke driver’s licenses “when such person shall have been guilty of such willful violation of any of the provisions of [N.J.S.A. 39:1-1 to 39:5G-2] as shall, in the discretion of the [judge], justify such revocation.” Given that reckless driving, by definition, involves a willful violation, a judge may revoke a driver’s license upon conviction, as established by State v Moran.

Why Hire an Attorney to Fight Reckless Driving Charges in NJ?

A reckless driving charge in New Jersey is no joke. In addition to the fine, court costs, and possible surcharge, a driver can also receive a jail sentence. It is possible to defeat a reckless driving charge or get it reduced to careless driving, but doing so would be more likely with the help of a skilled attorney. An attorney can evaluate the facts of the case to determine if the evidence is sufficient to convict. If any evidence is false, or if it was not collected in a legal manner, an attorney can fight to have it suppressed (meaning the prosecution cannot use the evidence against the driver). Moreover, an experienced attorney can poke holes in a prosecutor’s arguments, preventing him/her from demonstrating intent and/or endangerment of others’ safety. Finally, an experienced attorney who is a skilled negotiator can ultimately negotiate the best possible settlement or plea bargain under the circumstances.

Common Questions About Reckless Driving in New Jersey

  • Is reckless driving a crime in New Jersey?

    Reckless driving is a traffic violation that is treated as a crime. It is often referred to as “quasi-crime.” Unlike in New York and other states, a NJ reckless driving conviction will not appear on one’s criminal record. However, it will turn up on an MVC abstract, which many employers request during the background check stage. This means it can impact one’s life in ways similar to that of a criminal conviction. Even worse, it means a reckless driving conviction can never be expunged.

  • What speed is considered reckless driving?

    A NJ reckless driving charge is not solely dependent on one’s speed, although speeding can be a factor in determining if a driver was acting recklessly.

  • Is driving drunk also considered reckless driving?

    State v. Stanton establishes that “Intoxication in combination with other evidence or standing alone may satisfy the recklessness element” of a reckless driving charge. However, whether a driver is charged with both DUI and reckless driving will depend on the circumstances of the case and the discretion of the officers. For example, a driver with a particularly high blood-alcohol content (e.g. 0.30%) or who is driving erratically while under the influence could be charged with both offenses.

  • Is DUI worse than reckless driving in New Jersey?

    Both are serious but a DUI charge carries far more serious penalties than a reckless driving charge. In some serious cases, an attorney may recommend negotiating a DUI charge down to reckless driving (commonly referred to as a “wet reckless”). However, this is very difficult to do, so one should consult an attorney before committing to this strategy.

  • Is reckless driving worse than careless driving in NJ?

    Yes. Reckless driving carries more points, a higher fine, and a longer jail sentence than careless driving.

Who Should I Contact for Help with My NJ Reckless Driving Ticket?

If you or someone you love has been charged with reckless driving in New Jersey, it is urgent that you get help from a skilled attorney. The lawyers of the Rosenblum Law are skilled defense and traffic ticket attorneys with experience helping people charged with serious traffic offenses. Email the Rosenblum Law or Call 888-883-5529 today for a free consultation about your case.

Author Bio

Adam H. Rosenblum

Founding Attorney Of Rosenblum Law

Adam H. Rosenblum is an experienced and skilled traffic violations and criminal defense attorney. Mr. Rosenblum provides expert and aggressive representation to those facing points on their drivers’ licenses and the associated fines and surcharges.

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