Appeals From a Municipal Court to the Law Division Require a Hearing

State v. Jang, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2024). A party unhappy with a ruling by a Municipal Court may appeal to the Law Division for a trial de novo. As the Supreme Court said in State v. Robertson, 228 N.J. 138 (2017), “[a]t a trial de novo, the court makes its own findings of fact and conclusions of law but defers to the municipal court’s credibility findings.” The State continues to bear the burden of proof at such a trial.

Rule 3:23-4(b) states that “[u]pon the filing of a copy of the notice of appeal, . . . the criminal division manager’s office shall docket the appeal and shall . . . fix a date for the hearing of the appeal and mail written notice thereof to the prosecuting attorney and the appellant, or, if the appellant is represented, the appellant’s attorney” (emphasis by Judge Vinci, the author of today’s opinion). Several parts of Rule 3:23-8 also refer to a hearing and seem to assume that one will be held.

In this matter, which incorporated two consolidated cases, the Law Division declined to provide a hearing. That court said that counsel were required to request a hearing and added that when the court offered to hold a hearing after it had already ruled against defendants in these cases, defendants declined the offer of a hearing.

Judge Vinci was not persuaded. “The court erred by finding it is incumbent on counsel to request argument. Likewise, the court incorrectly determined it is not expected to solicit argument as a matter of course. That is precisely what the Rules require. The Rules provide, without exception, that upon the proper filing of a notice of municipal appeal, the criminal division manager shall fix a date for the hearing of the appeal and mail written notice thereof to the parties. R. 3:23-4(b). There is no requirement that counsel request a hearing.”

And offering a trial after already having ruled in these cases was no answer. “It was entirely reasonable for defendants to reject that offer under the facts and circumstances of these cases. Although a trial de novo is based primarily on the municipal court record, the Law Division is required to decide the case completely anew, determine whether the State proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and impose sentence. The defendants are entitled to a trial de novo conducted by a judge who has not already decided the case.” The panel ordered reversal and remand, and directed that a different judge hear the matters when they came back to the Law Division.

Judge Vinci said that “[t]o date, there are no published opinions construing these Rule provisions.” Now there is such an opinion, and there should be no doubt that Law Division proceedings on appeal from Municipal Courts should afford a hearing.