The New Jersey judiciary is taking the first step toward clearing as much as a third of old outstanding bench warrants for minor violations, one of the recommendations of a recent report on the municipal court system.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has created a panel of three assignment judges and charged them with holding hearings in the northern, central and southern parts of the state to ascertain whether any of nearly 790,000 outstanding warrants issued more than 15 years ago should remain in force.
The Administrative Office of the Courts found 787,764 open warrants from 1986 to 2003 issued for a defendant’s failure to appear in court to address parking violations, minor motor vehicle offenses and violations of local ordinances. Among those are 355,619 parking tickets. Warrants for such serious offenses as drunken driving, reckless driving, disorderly persons offenses and indictable offenses are not being considered for dismissal.
“Those old outstanding complaints and open warrants in minor matters 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,” Rabner wrote in the order issued last Thursday.
Advocates welcomed Rabner’s order as another step toward creating a fairer system of municipal courts, which consider several million matters each year and are the judicial system in which people are most likely to find themselves.
Revenue versus justice
“This is an important step in the process of reforming our municipal court,” said Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “Our municipal courts too often prioritize the goal of bringing in revenue over the goal of dispensing justice in a way that best serves the people.”
The Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines, and Fees released a report last week stating that does happen in some cases and it shouldn’t. New Jersey’s 515 municipal courts — some towns share a court or have formed joint courts — handle traffic offenses, disorderly persons charges, violations of municipal ordinances, domestic violence and some housing matters. They collected some $400 million in fines last year, more than half of which was retained by municipalities, which must pay personnel and other court costs.
That report also deemed problematic the widespread imposition of certain discretionary fines and the issuance of bench warrants for those who do not show up for a court hearing. It stated more than 2.5 million bench warrants are pending throughout the state, many of them dating back more than 30 years. It called for an end to the use of such warrants “as collection mechanisms” and urged the dismissal of old warrants involving minor offenses or minimal penalties.
Under the process established by Rabner, the Administrative Office of the Courts will provide municipalities with a list of the warrants proposed for cleaning two months prior to a panel hearing; local court officials will have the opportunity to contest any warrants they believe should remain in force.
Warrants have been a problem in other states too
New Jersey is not the only state in which municipal warrants have been a problem. A 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report found that issuing arrest warrants for missed court appearances or failure to pay fines and fees, particularly against indigent individuals, does not ensure equal justice and raises concerns about individuals’ due process and equal protection rights.
The far-reaching report released last Tuesday found that a number of other common practices occurring in the state’s municipal courts raise serious questions about the fairness and independence of the judicial system in which most Jerseyans are likely to find themselves. In addition to the cancellation of old warrants, it recommended more than 40 other reforms.
On the same day as the report was released, Rabner took the first step toward implementing some of its recommendations. The chief justice issued an order placing caps on the number and amount of fines municipal judges can impose for failing to appear in court and for failing to pay fines.
The judiciary is currently taking comments from the public on that report.
Hearings on the cancellation of old bench warrants have not yet been scheduled. After all the hearings have been conducted, the three-judge panel will make recommendations about the disposition of the old, minor municipal court matters that remain pending, as well as a process and timeframe for hearing challenges of the dismissal of specific complaints against individuals.