At least 787,764 open warrants in New Jersey for low-level municipal offenses — the likes of parking tickets and driving offenses such as running stop signs — are more than 15 years old.
Many of the alleged offenders might not even know about them or have long forgotten them, advocates say, or may be unaware that the fines have ballooned beyond what they could possibly afford, especially for low-income people.
Now the New Jersey Supreme Court wants to move forward with a plan for a onetime mass dismissal of minor municipal offenses that predate 2003, over the objections of local prosecutors, who contend that such action would reward people who failed to pay their fines.
Following a report this week recommending a variety of municipal-court changes, the high court has ordered a series of hearings on the idea of dismissing the unresolved cases. In an order Thursday, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner assigned three Superior Court judges to hold hearings on the proposal.
"Those old outstanding complaints and open warrants in minor matters raise questions of fairness, the appropriate use of limited public resources by law enforcement and the courts, the ability of the state to prosecute cases successfully in light of how long matters have been pending and the availability of witnesses, and administrative efficiency," Rabner wrote in the order. (See the full order below.)
He assigned Superior Court judges Ronald Bookbinder, Ernest Caposela, and Yolanda Ciccone to the panel. After the hearings, the judges are to issue a report to the Supreme Court, Rabner ordered, including a recommendation for how to handle the cases and — "if appropriate" — a recommendation on how to challenge the dismissal of specific complaints.
It's the first move by the state Supreme Court following Tuesday's report, whose recommendations are meant to ensure that municipal courts are fair forums — not revenue streams for towns, the court said.
Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director at the ACLU of New Jersey, said Thursday's order is an important step toward improving a system that penalizes poor people for being poor.
"One of the fundamental problems with municipal court debt collection is they're allowed to layer penalty after penalty on these small violations that really have an impact on everyone," she said, "and a disproportionate impact on poor people."
LoCicero gave the example of one of her clients, a homeless man in Watchung, Somerset County, who was fined for a moving violation in 2001. It was a relatively small amount, she said, but he couldn't pay it. The client was placed on a payment plan, but that was no help.
By 2015, when the man was picked up by police, his 13-year-old fine had grown to $1,350, plus a contempt-of-court charge. When he was arrested, he ended up spending 10 days in jail because the town's court convened infrequently.
"It was this total burden, it was an outrage," LoCicero said. In the end, she said, a judge cleared his case.
But for municipal prosecutors, dismissing old fines is akin to amnesty of a sort, rewarding people for simply waiting out the clock.
At its quarterly meeting in April, members of the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association overwhelmingly voted to oppose the Supreme Court's proposal. In what said Annette DePalma, the group's president and a municipal prosecutor in Maplewood, Essex County, called "a very lengthy and spirited conversation," local prosecutors from across the state argued that dismissing old cases would send the wrong message to defendants. In addition, the prosecutors argued that there should be at least some small monetary fine so that there is still some penalty.
"The overriding sentiment was that Justice Rabner's order would undermine the fundamentals of justice," DePalma said.
Asked whether the current system disproportionately punishes the poor for being poor — a fundamental injustice of a different sort — DePalma distinguished between the two issues.
"If someone is charged with something that falls into the jurisdiction of the municipal courts, that is not in and of itself punishing someone for being poor," she said.
At least two months before the hearings, which have not yet been scheduled, the judges will release a list of eligible cases to the municipalities so they can see what would be affected.
Of the current open warrants that would fall under this proposal, Rabner wrote, 355,619 of them involving parking tickets and 348,631 involve moving violations. The rest involve less common offenses, including local ordinance violations and fish-and-game violations.
The proposal would not include dismissing more serious cases, such as driving without a license, driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, passing a stopped school bus, or driving without insurance.