As this blog has increasingly stressed, the immigration consequences of traffic violations in municipal court for foreign nationals should not be underestimated, especially during the Trump Administration. While most routine moving violations under Title 39 do not generally trigger deportability, there are some more serious infractions that carry what the courts call a “consequence of magnitude”-meaning, to put it bluntly, substantial fines and the risk of imprisonment. Anytime a non-US citizen is exposed to jail, it would be prudent to have the charge evaluated by an immigration attorney. While the internet is a wonderful source of information, there is a lot of outdated information out there, and the reality is that we are living in a new age with new rules. What was true or the common practice before-even as late as last year-is not necessarily true now.
One of the more serious offenses that is heard in New Jersey’s municipal court is a violation of 39:4-129, Leaving the Scene of an Accident. Within the general statute, there are three different subsections: one involving personal injury or death; one, just property damage; and the last, damage to unattended property. Naturally, leaving the scene under circumstances where is injury is the more serious offense with penalties ranging from a fine between $2500 to $5000 and/or imprisonment up to six months. Where there is only property damage, a first offender shall be sentenced to a fine between $200 to $400 and/or jail up to 30 days. Besides these criminal penalties, there may be collateral immigration consequences. The issue is whether conviction of Leaving the Scene constitutes a Crime of or Involving Moral Turpitude (“CIMT”).
While there are currently no NJ cases directly on point, there are three prominent cases that do revolve around Leaving the Scene or “hit and run” type of offenses. One Fifth Circuit ruling, Garcia-Maldonado v. Gonzales, 491 F. 3d 284 (5th Cir. 2007), held that violation of a Texas hit and run statute did constitute a CIMT. The court focused on the defendant’s failure to render aid and found that such “base behavior…reflects moral turpitude.” The Court noted: “Once a driver knows he was involved in an accident, he necessarily knows that it is wrong to leave, or at the very least, to leave without attempting reasonable assistance.” In contrast, there are two decisions out of the Ninth Circuit which hold that the respective state hit and run statutes do not categorically constitute Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude. In both Cerezo v. Mukasey, 512 F. 3d 1163 (9th Cir. 2008) and Latu v. Mukasey, 547 F. 3d 1070 (9th Cir. 2008), the courts held that both hit and run statutes could be violated not only by failing to render aid, but also by merely failing to give all the requisite information to a police officer or injured party. These decisions are instructive and may provide a framework of analysis for cases in New Jersey since the New Jersey statute generally tracks the statutes in Cerezo and Latu. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to assume that a New Jersey violation will be treated similarly. The law is extremely fact and case sensitive. And depending on the circumstances, there is also a criminal version of Leaving the Scene in NJ under 2C:12-1.1, Knowingly Leaving Scene of Motor Vehicle Accident Resulting in Serious Bodily Injury. If there is serious bodily injury involved, everything changes and the stakes become increasingly grave, as conviction of this particular crime does not carry a presumption of non-imprisonment for first-time offenders.
In any case, interpretation and analysis of the immigration consequences of criminal and quasi-criminal conduct is extremely complicated. There are several factors to consider including but not limited to the case law, the statute, and the government’s position with respect to certain offenses-none of which are set in stone.
If you are not a US Citizen and have been charged with a serious violation in New Jersey’s municipal court, you not only should retain the services of a good defense attorney but also an immigration attorney who can evaluate any collateral effect on your status. For more information on the immigration consequences of certain New Jersey criminal offenses, contact our office. For the last twenty years, our office has not only defended people in municipal court, but also worked alongside some of New Jersey’s most respected criminal defense practitioners as immigration counsel to minimize any adverse immigration impact.
The above is general information only and not to be relied upon as legal advice. It does not create an attorney client relationship nor should it be relied upon as advice in lieu of consultation with an attorney.