NJ Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner

In March 2018, U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman wrote an unpublished opinion about constitutional violations that had occurred in a New Jersey municipal court where an indigent defendant charged with a minor littering offense had expected to receive justice but instead confronted a judge who viewed his case as a revenue-generating opportunity for the municipality. The opinion got little attention at the time except by Chief Justice Rabner, who used the case as an example in an April 17, 2018, memorandum to New Jersey’s municipal and Superior Court judges calling for reform of New Jersey’s municipal courts.

The facts of the municipal court case as recounted in the federal opinion, Kneisser v. McInerney, were startling. Plaintiff Kneisser, a 20-year-old college student employed part-time at $9 per hour, was issued a summons for tossing a cigarette butt from his car window. When he appeared in municipal court to plead guilty, Judge McInerney announced in opening remarks, “If you refuse to pay your fine, I will sentence you to the county jail.” After being fined $239 including court costs, Kneisser told the judge he could not pay anything that day, didn’t know anyone who could help him pay, and requested a payment plan. The judge’s immediate response: “All right. I’ll sentence you to five days in jail. Go with the officer.” Kneisser was then arrested, handcuffed, searched and taken to a cell where he was held until day’s end, when he was returned to court to belatedly discuss his indigent status. Judge Hillman’s thoughtful opinion in Kneisser’s §1983 action (a) granted his summary judgment motion as to Burlington Township and its municipal court, finding that his Fourth, Sixth and 14th Amendment rights had been violated; and (b) held that there were disputed issues of fact as to whether Judge McInerney was entitled to judicial immunity because it was unclear whether he was acting as a judge or as an administrator collecting money for the township. Judge Hillman noted that “Defendants’ [coercive collection] policy and practice was in effect for a long time, and it still may be.” A settlement of this case for $180,000 was recently announced in the Law Journal.

The Kneisser case is one of two cases discussed by the chief justice in his April 17, 2018, memorandum to the state’s judiciary highlighting problems in our municipal court system. As Chief Justice Rabner stated: “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.” He noted that he had appointed members of a committee to study municipal court operations and issue a report that would soon be released.

On July 17, 2018, the Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines and Fees issued its comprehensive 74-page report. Because editorial space limitations prevent addressing all aspects of this valuable report, we choose to highlight those findings concerning the unfortunate—in some cases, devastating—financial impact of municipal court operations on low-income people and the recommendations made to ameliorate or eliminate those problems.  First, it is important to remember that both the United States Supreme Court, Beardon v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), and the New Jersey Supreme Court, State v. De Bonis, 58 N.J. 182 (1971), have held that defendants may not be jailed merely because they cannot pay a fine and defendants who fail to do so are entitled to a hearing to determine their ability to pay. These principles appear to have been ignored too often in New Jersey.

New Jersey has 515 municipal courts for 565 municipalities. In 2017, these courts collected more than $400 million, more than half of which was turned over to the municipalities. The report notes that in addition to fines and court costs, municipal courts collect a large array of other statutory penalties such as the Unsafe Driving Fund ($250); Computer Crime Prevention Fund ($250); Drug Enforcement and Demand Reduction Fund ($500); criminal laboratory fee ($50); Safe Neighborhoods Services Fund ($75); Victims of Crime Compensation Fund ($50); $75 application fee for conditional discharge; $200 application for public defender.

Among the report’s most significant findings were that certain defendants suffer an “excessive imposition of financial obligations” that can be “never-ending,” often “having little to do with the fair administration of justice.” Such obligations, the report found, “have a disproportionately negative impact on the poor, and often become the starting point for an ongoing cycle of court involvement for defendants with limited resources.”

The report provided examples of the multiple financial obligations connected to single minor offenses. In one such example, a defendant who possessed a small amount of marijuana was fined $100 but was assessed total charges of $1,008—$200 public defender application fee; $500 drug enforcement fee; $50 lab fee, $75 safe neighborhood services fee; and $50 victims of crime compensation fee. The report urged legislative action to ameliorate the impact of the extensive list of mandatory statutory fees and surcharges that so burden defendants.

Additional potentially devastating consequences often occur when a defendant fails to appear in court on the day noticed or fails to make time payments. For failure to appear, a notice is sent with an automatic $10 surcharge. If the defendant still does not appear, the court may issue a bench warrant for the defendant’s arrest or suspend his driver’s license. If such defendant is impoverished and unable to make bail, he may be jailed until his next court appearance, leading to the possible loss of his job, a disproportionately harsh result for an offense where the penalty is a small fine. A suspended license may also cause loss of a defendant’s job or induce him to drive on a suspended license, thereby risking more serious penalties if he is caught. The report cites one study showing that 42 percent of those whose licenses were suspended lost their jobs as a result.

The report finds “alarming” that municipal courts too often issue contempt citations. Between 2015 and 2017, municipal courts assessed $22 million for contempt. Since all of this goes to the municipalities, the report finds that issuance of contempt citations often has more to do with collecting revenue than fairly administering justice.

The report makes many important, thoughtful recommendations that should be quickly adopted, whether legislatively or by court rule. (A few salutary changes to court rules have already been adopted, effective Sept. 1, 2018, including limits on monetary sanctions that can be imposed for failure to appear in municipal court). Of the report’s eight principles and 49 recommendations, among the most important are: (1) municipal courts are not a revenue-generating arm of the government; generation of revenue is no basis for imposing fines or fees; (2) no bench warrant or license suspension should issue against a defendant who is delinquent on time payments unless an ability-to-pay hearing is held; (3) develop a policy limiting to serious offenses the issuance of failure-to-appear bench warrants; (4) establish objective standards for evaluating municipal court judges having nothing to do with revenue collection; (5) judges should consider all sentencing alternatives, using license suspension as a last resort; (6) avoid inappropriate use of contempt citations and monitor contempt-of-court financial assessments.

Sadly, the report notes that municipal courts have come to be perceived by the public as a means to fund municipalities’ coffers rather than as a means to administer justice. Reforms consistent with the report’s recommendations are urgently needed so that justice in New Jersey municipal courts is fairly administered, and to correct this perception, since, for many people, the municipal court is the public face of the justice system, the only court with which they will ever come in contact.