New Jersey motorists who have been able to escape points for traffic tickets by pleading guilty to the catch-all charge of “unsafe operation of a motor vehicle” are finding it’s now an expensive bargain, thanks to a $250 surcharge imposed under the new state budget.
“I think a lot of people would rather pay the surcharge than pay the points,” said Charles Nistico, a lawyer who specializes in motor vehicle violations. “It’s just a way of raising money and it’s terrible.”
Before July 1, when the surcharge went into effect, drivers who used the unsafe operations charge only paid court costs and a fine, usually a total of less than $180, according to the state Motor Vehicle Commission.
Now the state estimates it will collect about $44 million in new charges each year. The revenue will be used to help pay off a $1.9 billion loan the McGreevey administration is using to help pay state operating expenses under the new budget.
Margate Municipal Prosecutor Joseph Sayegh said people are upset over the charge.
“I sympathize with them,” he told The Press of Atlantic City. “I don’t like it either. But it is something we have to live with. And when it comes down to it, there isn’t much of an alternative.”
Margate Judge James Savio sought to head off sore feelings about the added costs of the plea, which drivers can use twice in a five-year period.
“The judge has no control over this surcharge!!” read signs inside and outside his courtroom.
Nistico, who is based in Media, Pa., and represents clients in South Jersey, said he expects clients will continue to opt for the lesser charge, rather than risking ballooning insurance payments.
“For a first-time offender it’s a great way of getting rid of a speeding ticket or careless driving” charge, he said.
Until June 30 of this year — which was before the surcharge was imposed — 112,000 drivers had pleaded to the unsafe operations charge, according to the Motor Vehicle Commission.
Last year, 209,000 people took the charge, compared to 187,000 in 2002 and 174,000 in 2001.
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