A federal civil rights suit over a municipal judge’s jailing of an indigent defendant for nonpayment of a $239 fine, a case that helped lead to the mounting calls for municipal court reform in New Jersey, has been resolved by a $180,000 settlement, according to records obtained by the Law Journal.
The suit claimed that Dennis McInerney, the judge in Burlington Township and the presiding municipal judge for Burlington County, failed to consider the indigent status of Anthony Kneisser before sending him to jail for nonpayment of the fine.
The case became a cause celebre when Chief Justice Stuart Rabner cited it in an April 17 memo to the state’s judges as an example of “disturbing practices” in some municipal courts.
Kneisser, who was jailed after he failed to pay a fine for throwing a cigarette butt from his car window, will get $35,000 to settle his suit in U.S. district court; the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey will get $70,000, and Carluccio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle & Sacks, a Toms River law firm that represented Kneisser, will get $75,000, according to documents obtained from a public records request, including a settlement and release dated July 2.
The plaintiff was represented by his sister, Marguerite Kneisser, an attorney at Carluccio Leone, along with Jeanne LoCicero, Alexander Shalom and Alexi Velez of the ACLU.
Anthony Kneisser was a 20-year-old college student and part-time line cook earning $150 per week at the time of his May 2014 court hearing. He hoped to pay the fine in installments or to receive a community service sentence, but when he said he didn’t have the money and could not ask any family or friends for a loan, McInerney said he would be sentenced to five days in the county jail for refusing to pay. But the suit said Kneisser didn’t refuse to pay, and contended that McInerney should have inquired further about his financial circumstances. Kneisser remained held by Burlington Township for most of a day, until a family member bailed him out, according to Marguerite Kneisser.
U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman of the District of New Jersey granted partial summary judgment to Anthony Kneisser on March 30, finding he met his burden of providing sufficient, undisputed material facts to support claims that his Fourth, Sixth and 14th amendment constitutional rights were violated by a policy and practice employed by McInerney. Hillman also ruled on that date that the Township of Burlington was liable for those violations, but he left open the issue of whether McInerney was liable. Hillman cited “disputed issues of material fact concerning Judge McInerney’s role as administrator as opposing to presiding judge” which “preclude a ruling as a matter of law.”
Rabner’s April 17 memo to the state’s judges about municipal courts, which referenced Kneisser v. McInerney, said judges should ensure in every case that “justice is carried out without regard to any outside pressures. That means that each defendant is entitled to have his or her case decided on the merits; that any punishment imposed should reflect the defendant’s conduct and history; and that incarceration should only be ordered if the circumstances of the case require it.” Rabner’s memo also said, “The imposition of punishment should in no way be linked to a town’s need for revenue. And defendants may not be jailed because they are too poor to pay court-ordered financial obligations.”
On July 17, a Supreme Court committee issued a comprehensive report calling for a long list of reforms to the state’s municipal court system. Among the report’s numerous suggestions for reform is one calling for revised procedures where a defendant, post-disposition, fails to pay a fine, including the mandatory scheduling of an ability-to-pay hearing.
Kneisser’s suit was designated as settled on the federal court’s electronic PACER docket as of June 25, but details of the settlement were not documented. The Law Journal obtained the settlement agreement after making an Open Public Records Act request to the joint insurance fund that covers Burlington Township.
Marguerite Kneisser said her brother’s case was “a catalyst” that helped bring municipal court reform to the foreground.
“I think this really helped push changes that need to be made in the municipal court system,” she said.
She said her brother’s confidence in the justice system was shaken by the experience. “The fear of going to the county jail for a littering offense really affected him,” she said.
LoCicero said the ACLU got involved “because we have had an ongoing concern about the kind of justice people receive in New Jersey’s municipal courts.”
She said, “not many people are able to vindicate their rights when they are violated at the municipal court level. This is an illustration of the kinds of threats they face.”
The favorable ruling from Hillman helped the parties come to a settlement, LoCicero added.
McInerney did not respond to messages left at his Moorestown law office or at the office of the presiding municipal judge.
John Slimm of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Mount Laurel, who represented McInerney, and David Serlin, a Moorestown solo practitioner who represented Burlington Township and the township’s municipal court, also did not return calls.