‘This Makes No Sense’ — NJ May Be Illegally Collecting Fee on Overturned DWI Law
The state is continuing to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in fines for a drunk-driving law that's been ruled unconstitutional. But lawmakers could soon put the brakes on that.
Townsquare Media last week revealed that drivers convicted of drunk driving are still being assessed a $25 surcharge that was supposed to be used by municipalities to buy and install video equipment in new police cars — a program that was abolished earlier this year by the independent state Council on Local Mandates.
The council — which exists to protect municipalities from laws that burden local taxpayers — determined that the 2014 law was an "unfunded mandate" because the $25 fee was not enough to pay for the equipment.
As a result, the council deemed the $25 surcharge "nugatory" or invalid.
But the Christie administration is arguing that the council only overturned the dashcam provision of the law — for the fee, which brings in about $500,000 a year,
“The surcharge provision, which was a different part of the law, was not declared to be an unfunded mandate, so it remains on the books and is still being enforced," Assistant Attorney General Stephan Finkel said in an interview last week with New Jersey 101.5.
But Jack Sweeney, the chairman of the Council on Local Mandates, this week said the plain meaning of the council's April 20 decision couldn't be any clearer — or any further from the state's interpretation.
The DWI surcharge was created specifically to fund the purchase of video cameras, Sweeney said, but because the law has been wiped off the books, continuing to collect the surcharge doesn’t make sense.
“If that law is unconstitutional then there is nothing to fund,” he said. “My opinion is, frankly, that the surcharge, which was rendered nugatory, which means of no validity, should not be collected.”
“If it’s being collected, what are they using it for? To fund what? I think that’s the question that has to be asked. Really, I think it’s improper to collect money that was supposed to be used for something that has been declared to be an unconstitutional mandate.”
Finkel last week said the surcharge money is supposed to be returned to municipal, county and state coffers. But no state agency that New Jersey 101.5 reached could provide an accounting of the funds.
Sweeney believes that municipal courts should not be collecting the surcharge, and the Administrative Office of the Courts should look into what’s happening because they would have the power to “fix the problem.”
New Jersey Courts Acting Administrative Director Glenn Grant declined to comment for this story.
A spokesman for Finkel on Wednesday also declined to respond to Sweeney's reaction.
Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D-Gloucester, who sponsored the original legislation that implemented the surcharge, is not happy with the current situation.
While he disagrees with the council's reasoning in overturning the law, “if they are collecting the surcharge, all of the money should used to buy video cameras for police cars.”
“The money should be for one purpose only. What’s happening is not the legislative intent and that’s just wrong, that’s not what we voted on, and to me that means we have to do something to clarify the issue.”
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, who voted against the original legislation, said the state is now "collecting the money in an unauthorized fashion."
He says the governor’s office or the state attorney general “has to be more assertive, ensuring that the law is followed — and by 'following the law' I mean not following the law that was declared unconstitutional."
Lesniak says the administration's interpretation of the council's edict "makes absolutely no sense."
“I think whoever gave that opinion needs to go back to law school.”