All vehicles that are registered in New Jersey are required to have liability insurance. The responsibility to insure a vehicle falls on either the owner of the vehicle, or either the person who holds title to the vehicle. The minimum amount of insurance that a driver must have is $15,000 for the injury or death of one person, $30,000 for the death or injury of more than one person, and $5,000 for damage to property.
A driver faces escalating penalties for a no insurance violation. The key issue is whether the driver has any prior offenses. A first offense will subject a driver to a fine of not less than $301, nor more than $1,002. Additionally, a driver must also perform an indefinite amount of community service. In some municipal courts, the judge will often waive the community service for a first time offender. However, some stricter municipal court judges impose many community service hours on defendants if they driver without liability insurance.
For a second offense or any subsequent conviction, the penalties consist of fine of $502, plus $30 court costs. There is a mandatory jail sentence of 14 days. The court must also sentence the driver to 30 days of community service. In New Jersey one day of community service is considered to be 6 hours long, so the community service sentence is really 180 hours.
Also, upon a second no insurance conviction, the defendant’s driver’s license must be suspended for two years. A driver who has been convicted a second time of driving without liability insurance does not automatically get their license back. The director of the MVC has the authority under N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2 to forever refuse to give the driver back his or her license, unless the driver can provide specific assurances that he or she will never again operate their vehicle without insurance.
Driving without liability insurance also has many collateral consequences. A driver must pay a $250 a year surcharge to MVC for three years. Moreover, a driver will be assess 9 insurance eligibility points. These insurance eligibility points will make it very expensive for any driver to obtain any type of motor vehicle insurance.
A driver has available a few defenses to contest a no insurance charge. However, the success or failure of such a defense is largely dependent on which municipal court the charges are filed in. Some municipal courts are fairly lenient to drivers. Other municipal courts are very strict. It may be possible in some factual situations to have a driving without insurance charge downgraded to the charge of being an unlicensed driver, or to the less serious charge of driving while suspended. A key factor is how long the driver was without liability insurance. If the driver was only without insurance between 30 to 60 days, then quite often the police officer(s), and the prosecutor will permit a downgrade to unlicensed driver or to driving while suspended. These charges require a 60-day loss of license, instead of the 1-year loss of license for driving without insurance.
Another typical defense is to blame the driver’s spouse. The driver can allege at trial that their spouse was responsible to pay for the insurance. Sometimes, the court will not convict a driver if the State cannot prove that he knowingly and purposefully drove without liability insurance.
Another defense that can be raised is that the driver’s insurance company did not provide a certified letter that revoked the insurance policy. In the case of State v. Hochman, 188 N.J. Super. 382 (App. Div. 1982), the court reversed a conviction for driver without liability insurance. The court ruled that the prosecutor did not satisfy their burden that the automobile insurance was lawfully cancelled. This type of a defense is a long shot. In most municipal courts the judge will not agree with this defense. However, it is a meritorious appealable issue.
In light of this defense, a driver can always argue that they did not receive adequate notice from their insurance company that their policy was cancelled. Most often the municipal court prosecutors are very busy, and they will not contact your insurance company to verify this fact. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 29C:10; an insurance company must provide all drivers with a notice of cancellation of a policy of automobile liability insurance. A common reality is that drivers often move. In most cases the prosecutor cannot prove that the driver received adequate notice of the cancellation of his insurance policy.
Another defense is that the insurance company improperly cancelled your policy. It there is a question of an improper cancellation of your policy, then you or your attorney should subpoena your insurance file from the insurance company or your insurance broker.
In summary, a driver should be prepared to fight a no insurance charge. A good lawyer can focus on the proofs that the State must establish at trial. If the prosecutor is not prepared, then quite often a ‘hard fighting” lawyer can reach a compromise with the prosecutor. The most often used compromise is that the driver can plead guilty to an unlicensed driving charge, or to a driving while suspended charge instead of driving without insurance. This type of compromise will permit the driver to avoid a lengthy suspension, possible jail time, and expensive surcharges.
The Municipal Court must also suspend the defendant’s driving privileges for a period of one year from the date of conviction.
The concept of causing a person to operate an insured motor vehicle has taken on the characteristics of a strict liability offense. In State v. Hayducka, 337 N.J. Super. 168 (App. Div. 2001), the defendant-owner left her uninsured vehicle in the car of a relative. The relative was given consent to move the vehicle from one side of the driveway to the other as the need arose. Without the consent of the owner, the relative drove the vehicle on the streets and was involved in an accident. The court ruled that the obvious purpose and the intent of the N.J.S.A. 39:6B-2 is to keep uninsured vehicles off the roads for the protection of the public who may be injured or damaged by their operation. Thus, the statute penalizes all those responsible for creating a situation where the statutory protection give the public is denied to them.