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, the 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.