NJ Courts May Dismiss Nearly 800K Warrants for Old Tickets
Days after a Supreme Court committee criticized the state's municipal courts for acting like ATM machines for local governments, the state's top court paved the way to dismiss nearly 800,000 outstanding warrants for local violations and parking tickets.
The order may spare countless people from getting handcuffed and arrested during a traffic stop or other encounter with police over warrants many had no idea were hanging over their heads.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner’s order on Thursday said old warrants “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.”
The warrants being considered are at least 15 years old and include 355,619 for parking tickets and 348,631 tickets for moving violations. The rest are for minor local offenses.
Criminal justice reform advocates say such warrants often disproportionately affect the poor and minorities.
A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri, police department, following the unrest sparked by the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, said such warrants "exacerbate the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices" and that "minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing."
The New Jersey Supreme Court order would not consider indictable offenses or felonies, or other serious offenses such as driving while intoxicated, reckless driving and major traffic violations. The order also would not include low-level disorderly or petty disorderly persons offenses. The court's announcement on Thursday did not say how many warrants exist for such misdemeanors.
Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, called the order a "a potentially very significant first step."
"We are better as a society when we are protecting public safety not when we are harming people who are simply too poor to pay fines," Shalom said.
"If someone committed a disorderly persons offense decades ago and has done nothing since, what is the public safety interest in holding them to account for a couple hundred dollar fine? It simply doesn’t advance public safety and we know how much it harms individuals and their communities and their ability to fully integrate into society."
The order calls for a three-judge panel to conduct hearings to allow people to argue why their cases should be dismissed. The dates and locations of the hearings have not been determined.
The committee's report called for dismissing bench warrants that involved minor offenses and recommended that warrants only be issued for serious offenses or in which unpaid fines are substantial.
The report also criticized municipal courts for abusing contempt of court assessments, which raked in $22 million for municipalities between 2015 and 2017.
The committee said defendants should not be jailed for failure to pay fines unless the municipal court holds a hearing to determine the person's ability to pay.