The penalty for driving without insurance in New Jersey is severe. In many ways, it is worse than a first offense DWI. A person who is convicted for a first offense of driving their car, or letting someone else drive their car, without insurance, will lose their driving privileges for 1 year, and pay a fine of between $300 and $1,000. The judge may also impose community service. In comparison, even a first offense for a second tier DWI only has a 7 month loss of license. If you’ve been charged with this offense you are likely in disbelief as to how serious the consequences are. As a New Jersey traffic attorney who has defended countless clients in municipal court for this offense, I have mixed feelings about these penalties.
Driving without car insurance is an incredibly serious and dangerous situation. If you get in a serious accident and don’t have insurance, you will not likely have the financial resources to cover medical bills for yourself and occupants of another vehicle if there are injuries, as well as the resulting property damage. You will be sued personally, costs that are usually covered by your insurance company. These costs can be in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you don’t have the money to cover the resulting financial liability you can leave another person in a dire situation, and yourself paying off debt for the rest of your life. So to me, the penalties associated with Driving Without Insurance, under 39:6B2 are appropriate, and designed to deter people from doing it. My problem with the penalties is that you are going to say to me, “But I didn’t know the penalties were so severe or I wouldn’t have done it.” And you know what? I believe you. Unlike DWI which everyone knows has serious penalties and consequences, there has been no campaign to educate the citizens of New Jersey, and make them aware of the penalties for driving without insurance. There have been no public service announcements, or ads on TV. Simply, people don’t know. While ignorance of the law is no defense, practically speaking, it is only fair to make sure people are well aware of the penalties for very serious offenses. And if the penalties are to serve their designed purpose; having a deterring effect, then people need to know what the penalties are if they are going to be deterred!
There are various aspects of this statute, and defenses can be complicated. Considering the wording, which says that a person either, “[knew] or should [have known] from the attendant circumstances that the motor vehicle is without motor vehicle liability coverage” defending these cases can be difficult. This extremely broad language allows a prosecutor to respond to most defense arguments, “Well, your client should have known”, under most circumstances. Having said that, defenses do exist. A successful defense is only possible with an extremely nuanced reading of the statute, case law, analysis of a client’s particular situation. Aggressive and persistent representation is essential. Remember, I have to convince a prosecutor or judge why a client shouldn’t have known about the insurance status of either their own car, or a car they were driving! If you have been charged with this offense, I urge you to consult with an extremely skilled attorney as soon as possible after receiving your summons, as building a defense can take time.
What happens if you have a valid insurance policy, and need to show a police officer your card, but you don’t have it with you? You are not guilty of driving without insurance, but you will likely receive a summons for that offense anyway. Don’t panic! Those cases are much easier to defend, and I usually resolve those scenarios by having the charge downgraded to 39:3-29, Failure to Exhibit Documents. The penalty for that offense is a relatively small financial fine, with no further consequences. That charge means you were driving your car without either your license, or registration, or had no insurance card physically in your car, which is required.
In closing, I urge diligence in maintaining a valid liability policy on your car. Judges don’t have sympathy for excuses: I didn’t have the money to renew the policy, I thought I had insurance, I don’t know what happened, I’ll lose my job, I’ll lose my house, I’ll lose everything, I have to get to work, I have to pick up the kids, I have a sick parent to take care of… Those excuses, though they are all likely true, simply won’t work. Harsh, I know, but reality. So be advised: DO NOT drive without car insurance in New Jersey.