NJ municipal courts are fleecing the public, top court says
It's no secret: Many municipal courts in New Jersey have become de-facto money making machines, collecting more than $400 million in revenue last year, with more than half of that total turned over to municipalities.
But now the state's top court and some lawmakers want to take the profit out of policing, saying the courts should be about justice — not ripping off people.
A state Supreme Court committee on Tuesday recommended alternatives to bench warrants or driver’s license suspensions, reviewing how municipal judges are appointed to make sure they are not judged by the amount of money they rake in, consolidating smaller municipal courts and improving online access to pay fines and fill out forms.
They also want to do away with the practice of locking people up for being too poor to pay fines. Municipal Court judges will have to hold hearings to determine a defendant's ability to pay before imposing certain penalties.
The 31-member committee's report details how the excessive imposition of financial obligations and sanctions, such as the suspension of driver’s license privileges, can quickly escalate.
In one example, the report explained how a $95 ticket for speeding can turn into $389 after a municipal prosecutor gets a person to plead guilty to unsafe driving in order to avoid the two-point penalty on the driving record. That change comes with a $250 surcharge, plus a $33 court fine, $1 for body armor fund, $1 for spinal cord fund, $1 for autism fund, $2 for DNA lab fund, and $1 for brain injury fund.
In another scenario, the report shows how a $100 fine for simple possession of marijuana turns into $1,008 after paying for a $200 application for a public defender, $33 in court costs, $500 for drug enforcement and demand reduction, $50 lab fee, $50 victims of crime compensation, and $75 safe neighborhood services fund.
The Supreme Court committee said many of these fines have nothing to do with advancing justice.
In fact, in 2016, New Jersey 101.5 exposed how municipal courts continued to collect a $25 DWI surcharge even though the law the surcharge was based on was overturned.
In another scenario, the committee lamented how a person's inability to pay a $130 fine for failing to have a car inspected can turn into a $1,500 burden after a court gets the MVC to suspend the person's license. Often, people continue driving with suspended licenses because they need to get to work.
The committee recommended monitoring and limiting the use of contempt of court financial assessments, which go directly to municipal coffers, and require judges to place a justification on the record before using this “judicial tool of last resort.”
Between 2015 and 2017, municipal courts levied $22 million in contempt of court assessments. Courts in Burlington County collected the most: $1.13 million in 2015, $1.1 million in 2016 and $881,000 last year.
The committee report also called for sentencing guidelines and limiting bench warrants and license suspensions to cases involving serious offenses or in which unpaid fines are substantial.
[Days after this report was released, the state Supreme Court issued an order paving the way for nearly 800,000 old warrants for minor offenses to be released.]
State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, a member of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee, said we need to crack down on people that break the law “but the punishment shouldn’t be incentivized by profit.”
“If you spend any time in many municipal courts you’ll see that many of them are just revenue generating machines," he said Tuesday.
“Our ultimate goal needs to be the greatest amount of compliance, the greatest amount of safety with the least amount of punishment needed to attain those levels.”
He said what’s happening amounts to policing for profit.
“By us turning them into revenue generators, or de-facto tax collectors, it really destroys the noble mission of policing, and that’s not fair to them," he said.
O’Scanlon said he’s working on several bills to move reforms forward.
“Extending judge terms is something that we’re very interested in looking at. The idea of more transparency and technology in courts. We’re going to encourage court consolidation where it makes sense.”
He added lawmakers will also look at surcharges, where someone all of a sudden gets multiple violations and they’re buried under a debt they can’t recover from.
O’Scanlon said the idea is to be fairer to people, “enhance safety and improve people’s opinion of the judiciary and the respect for our police. Those are all goals that can be achieved through these reforms.”