The New Jersey Supreme Court has dismissed all of nearly 790,000 outstanding municipal cases and warrants for minor offenses that have been pending for more than 16 years, implementing a key recommendation of last July’s critical report on the municipal court system.
The top court’s decision to clear all 787,764 old, open matters from municipal dockets is part of its effort to create a fairer system of municipal courts, the judicial system in which people are most likely to find themselves. For years, these local courts have been criticized for prioritizing revenue generation over justice. A July 2018 special Supreme Court committee report found some truth in those complaints and suggested a host of reforms.
Among the major problems the report cited is 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 that, at the time, more than 2.5 million bench warrants were 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.
At the time, Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner quickly issued an order capping certain municipal court fines and fees and he created a three-judge panel to review whether minor matters dating back before January 1, 2003 should be dismissed. After holding hearings in the northern, central and southern parts of the state, the panel recommended the dismissal of all the minor offenses, which include many motor vehicle offenses, penalty enforcement actions, and violations of local ordinances and fish and game regulations.
A question of fairness
Last Thursday, the Supreme Court issued an order doing that. It disposes of all the cases, recalls the warrants for failure to appear in court on those offenses, and also rescinds court-ordered suspensions and revocations of driver’s licenses that may have resulted. Individuals will be able to regain their licenses but will still have to pay license restoration fees or other requirements set by the state Motor Vehicle Commission.
“These 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.
Cases involving more serious offenses — such as driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, major traffic violations, disorderly and petty disorderly persons offenses, and indictable offenses — were not eligible for dismissal and remain open.
The state Administrative Office of the Courts has created a searchable database where individuals can see whether any outstanding matters against them were dismissed. A random search of cases found ones dating back more than 25 years for violating overnight parking rules, failing to shovel snow from a sidewalk, and allowing a dog to run “at large.” According to the AOC, one of the matters dismissed dates to 1976.
Some controversial recommendations
Additional cases could be dismissed more quickly in the future. As part of the order, the court tasked one of its committees with recommending whether the judiciary should consider dismissing such cases after just 10 years and whether to expand the types of matters eligible for dismissal. That committee is also charged with developing a process for periodically reviewing and dismissing old unresolved municipal court matters.
More than 6.1 million cases were filed in New Jersey’s 515 municipal courts — some towns share a court or have formed joint courts — in the year ending June 30. The courts collected some $400 million in fines the previous year.
Rabner had created the Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines and Fees in March 2017 to review practices of the local courts, recommend ways to improve the integrity of their operations and strengthen judicial independence. While Rabner has taken some steps to implement recommendations contained in its July 2018 report, dozens of others have not been put in place. Some of those would require legislative action and a few are controversial.
One of the most significant suggestions would create a transparent and impartial appointment and reappointment processes for judges, increasing judges’ terms to five years; the current term is three years. Another calls for the mandatory consolidation of smaller courts, which may meet only once or twice a month and have fewer than 1,000 filings a year.